The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South Paperback – Feb 24 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
I AM N-N-NOT DYING! screamed Willie Francis, a 17-year-old African-American convicted of murder by an all-white Louisiana jury in 1946, during the failed electrocution that kicks off this tale of justice gone awry in the segregated American South. As told in a sometimes repetitious avalanche of detail by King (Woman, Child for Sale), Francis's story is emblematic of the time and place—a prominent white man in a Cajun town was gunned down, and soon Francis was picked up and, under duress and without an attorney, confessed to the crime. Despite no eyewitnesses and scant physical evidence, Francis was convicted and sentenced to death. After surviving the first execution attempt, he waited in prison nearly a year while the battle over his fate went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After a page-turning start with the ill-fated execution attempt described in gripping detail, King runs out of steam. What's of interest is the horrifying botched execution and the fact, revealed late in the narrative, that Francis never denied committing the murder. While his eventual execution is tragic, this account doesn't add much to our understanding of U.S. race relations. 16 page b&w insert not seen by PW. (Apr.)
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Not quite as good as his book, "Devil in the Grove," but worth a read anyway.
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Willie Francis was just 16 years old when he was charged with the murder of popular St. Martinville druggist Andrew Thomas. Willie did not deny that he had killed Thomas. The preponderance of evidence would seem to confirm it. But were there extenuating circumstances here? Willie had worked for Andrew Thomas at the drugstore doing odd jobs. In his written confession Willie Francis makes an extremely curious statement recalling that "it was a secret about him and me." Yet at his trial, which most objective observers would consider to be an absolute travesty of justice, his court appointed attorneys failed to mount any sort of defense at all on behalf of their client. Young Willie Francis was sentenced to die in the electric chair. On May 3, 1946 Willie Francis was strapped into the portable electric chair known as Gruesome Gertie and the switch was thrown. Remarkably, Willie Francis did not die! The execution had been badly botched and Willie Francis would live to see another day. At this point a young Cajun attorney named Bertrand LeBlanc would get involved in this case. LeBlanc's ancestors had been heavily involved in the white supremacy movement in Louisiana but young Bertrand rejected this way of thinking. Like so many other young men who had served alongside Negroes in World War II the war had changed his thinking on the subject of race. Much like Aticus Finch in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "To Kill A Mockingbird", Bertrand LeBlanc would incur the wrath of his community to defend this young black man. Over the next year this story would take numerous twists and turns as the state of Louisiana sought to return Willie Francis to the chair a second time. In fact, Bertrand LeBlanc would succeed in taking this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and the fate of Willie Francis would become a national story.
While Gilbert King certainly does a workmanlike job of presenting the facts surrounding the trial and subsequent execution of Willie Francis "The Execution of Willie Francis" turns out to be about so much more. This book examines the sad state of race relations in the South during this period. At the same time King presents in clear and concise language the complex legal issues that surrounded this most unusual situation. Finally, readers catch a somewhat unflattering glimpse of how the U.S. Supreme Court handled this particular case. I must tell you that "The Execution of Willie Francis" had this reader mesmorized throughout. I simply could not put this one down. It is a story that you will never forget. Very highly recommended!
Many people believed that God had intervened to save Willie Francis's life and that therefore he should not be electrocuted a second time. A local white attorney named Bertrand DeBlanc believed that to put Francis in the electric chair a second time would constitute cruel and unusual punishment and place him in double jeopardy. So, against the wishes of most of the Cajun parish in which he lived, and at some considerable danger to his life and career, DeBlanc took the case and tried to save Francis's life.
Gilbert King makes it clear that it was highly unlikely that Willie Francis could have committed this crime, even if he had wanted to, and further that his appointed defense lawyers presented no defense at all to the charges. King shows how the "confession" was probably coerced from Willie Francis by Sheriff Gilbert Ozenne and his colleagues who had spent a considerable part of their lives terrifying and brutalizing black people and others who would stick up for them. As has been documented in innumerable books, people like Ozenne and his sidekick Gus "Killer" Walker believed that their job was to "keep the nigras down" by whatever means, and especially to deny them their civil rights, in particular the right to vote.
The larger horrific drama, of which the Willie Francis case is just one sorry example, played prominently throughout the South after the Civil War (and continues in more muted tones today), but was most obvious in places like St. Martinsville where people were mostly poor and uneducated. The savage brutality was first of all a way of effectively maintaining something close to slavery, and second a revenge upon the North for winning the war and attempting to deprive the South of its cheap source of labor. In another sense this sordid record of murder and something close to genocide or ethnic cleansing (before such terms were much used), stemmed from an attempt by beaten southern white males, in most particular the semi-educated and ignorant ones, to reestablish their deluded notion of manhood.
But this is also a chapter in the story of how gradually the South changed; how Afro-Americans with incredible patience and Sisyphean labors over many decades, while suffering enormous pain and loss of life, managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve something close to equality with whites. It is a story of great courage and determination.
Gilbert King's account is a vivid and compelling chapter in this uniquely American tale. The book is meticulously researched, amply documented with numerous endnotes, beautifully written, and powerfully engaged. In short, The Execution of Willie Francis is a outstanding work of journalism and a much welcome addition to an important literature. We have to face what we have done so that it might be a bit more difficult for others to do the same; and there, by increments, we might become more human.
The death penalty is at the center. It's always been hard to know if the death penalty is fair or not. It's easy to see the reason on both sides. At any rate, this book offers a look into a story in history that most of us haven't known about and it's well worth the read.
-Susanna K. Hutcheson