CJI speaker relates story of teen who was executed twice

An oft-cited expert on execution methods detailed for a Law Center audience the disturbing story of a black Louisiana teenager who was executed twice for the murder of a small-town druggist. Prof. Deborah W. Denno of the Fordham University School of Law related how Willie Francis was only 17 in 1946 when he was strapped into a portable electric chair – dubbed “Gruesome Gertie” – and the switch was thrown.  The voltage should have been enough to kill him, but the execution failed.  (Some reports blamed a lengthy extension cord hooked to an old generator, while others conjectured that the chief executioner was too inebriated to properly handle his duties.)  Regardless of who or what was to blame, there was no mistaking the outcome.  “I am not dying,” the youth screamed from behind his leather hood.  Francis was returned to his cell with a new distinction.  “He was one of the few inmates who could tell how (electrocution) felt,” Denno noted.  The youth’s reprieve did not last long. He was executed again – this time successfully – almost exactly one year later.

Denno’s  provocative presentation was the third in the “Criminal Law at the Cutting Edge Leading Voices Lectures Series” sponsored by the Criminal Justice Institute at the Law Center.  Denno researched the decades-old execution story for a chapter –  The Disturbing Death Penalty Story of Willie Francis and His Two Executions—in the book Death Penalty Stories published by Foundation Press.

The professor said Francis’ appeals were handled by a young lawyer, Bertrand DeBlanc, who was a friend of the victim, but felt morally outraged that the teen would be executed twice. DeBlanc argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and focused on three areas of the law: cruel and unusual punishment, double jeopardy, and equal protection. While arguing that the first execution attempt did not violate the 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, DeBlanc maintained the second attempt would certainly exceed that constitutional standard. While initially issuing a stay, the high court ultimately affirmed the lower court in a 5-4 ruling. Although there had been indications that the Supreme Court might take up the case when it again worked its way through lower courts, Francis apparently had told his lawyer to “leave it alone.”   According to Denno, the young man “was ready to die.”

Aside from the issue of the botched execution, Denno said there were plenty of things wrong with the murder trial itself:

  • Francis was not provided an attorney during interrogations by police
  • His two “confessions” included legal phrasing such as “on or about the time.”
  • The murder weapon once belonged to a deputy sheriff who had previously threatened to kill the victim.
  • The gun was lost prior to trial.
  • No defense was mounted.

Denno said the justice afforded Willie Francis was not exclusive to the small southern town of St. Martinville or the South generally, but instead was prevalent throughout the country. “He was just one of the many poor blacks who were being executed,” Denno noted.  In retrospect, what are the odds that Francis was guilty? “50-50,” Denno declared. 

Through the years, issues involved in the Francis case have come up repeatedly in capital cases.  In 2005, the court ruled that juveniles under 18 cannot be executed.  The question of whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment remains to be resolved, and a pending case from Ohio involving a second execution attempt bears some similarities to the Francis case of the 1940s. 

As an expert on execution methods, Denno was asked what she considered the best means of carrying out capital punishment. “You can have a humane lethal injection execution if you do it right,” she said. But the quickest and surest method, though considered by many to be the most barbaric, is death by firing squad. The police and military executioners are trained to do it, she said, and there is never a botched attempt.

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The fourth and final lecture in the CJI series is scheduled for April 7 when Wayne A. Logan, professor of law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Florida State University College of Law, discusses Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America.

Prof. Deborah W. Denno of Fordham School of Law discussed the case of a teenager in the 1940s who was executed twice.

Prof. Deborah W. Denno of Fordham School of Law discussed the case of a teenager in the 1940s who was executed twice.

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