James Madison, our fourth president, is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was the principal author of the U. S. Constitution and was responsible for the first ten amendments to the Constitution, and the Fifth Amendment was one that he wrote to protect us against abuse of government authority. He drafted the Double Jeopardy Clause, which states, “No person shall be subject to more than one punishment or one trial for the same offense.”
Well, with that being said on May 4, 1946 a black man named Willie Francis, who was sentenced to die in the electric chair for the murder of Andrew Thomas, a white St. Martinville druggist. Willie confessed to killing the man and robbing him of $4.00 and a watch. Willie said, “Thomas was a swell guy” and was once employed by him. “I don’t know why I shot him because I wasn’t after money.”
Willie Francis was 15 years old at the time of the murder. And two years later he was facing the electric chair. Back in those days each parish held their own electrocutions but the state provided the chair and supervised the operation.
Willie Francis, the only man to ever walk away from the electric chair and talk about it felt relieved, albeit temporarily, when the electric chair that he was strapped to didn’t perform as intended when the switch was thrown. According to the warden of the state penitentiary, the chair malfunctioned due to a loose electrical connection in the control panel. The warden added that the chair would be taken to Baton Rouge for repairs and returned the following Thursday for another attempt at executing Willie Francis.
Fred S. LeBlanc, the Louisiana attorney general said, “There was one line of authority, which states that if a death sentence was not carried out on the date set, it could not be attempted again.” He said that he could not make any off-hand opinion in Francis’ bizarre case. However, he pointed out the court’s sentence probably said Francis should be “executed until dead.”
Five days later, on May 9, 1946 the Louisiana Supreme Court said they had no authority to set aside the order of execution nor could they order a pardon or a commutation of sentence.
Bertrand S. DeBlanc, a young attorney from Lafayette agreed to take “the cruel and unusual punishment” case to the United States Supreme Court. By this time Willie Francis had become something of a folk hero. Willie received letters of support from all parts of the country. A disabled vet asked to take Willie’s place on the chair, but Willie declined the offer saying, “If anybody’s gonna sit, I’ll sit.”
Justice Felix Frankfurter commented on the incident involving the chair saying it was an “innocent misadventure” and the whole situation was very disturbing. Five of the nine justices said it wasn’t cruel. They did say it was an accident that the chair didn’t work and no one was to blame for it. Frankfurter was the fifth and deciding vote in favor of sending Francis back to the electric chair a second time.
Willie Francis was electrocuted at 12:05 p.m. on May 9, 1947; one year and five days after he walked away from his first date with the electric chair.