This is a book about events that happened at the wrong time. Had they occurred 50 years later, the outcome would have been different, and a life could have been spared. By all rights, that life should have been spared in 1946, but justice, in 1946, was denied.
Author/journalist Gilbert King (Woman, Child for Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century) has drawn the threads of this drama together to make it read like a modern news story. In St Martinsville, Louisiana, a young man was convicted of murder, partly based on his own confession. According to the facts of the case, Willie Francis, age 16, walked into the garage of a neighbor and shot him in cold blood. Apart from robbery, there was little known motive. It was an obvious case of first-degree murder, punishable by death in “Gruesome Gertie” – the electric chair.
But there were mitigating factors. Willie, who had a notable stutter, was almost certainly a person of limited cognitive functioning who wanted to please his captors, so his confession, a few scrawled words, should have been examined in that light. His youth alone,
along with his lack of a police record, could have militated against the death sentence. And his victim, a mysterious if respectable loner, had possible enemies more likely to want to do away with him than young Willie, who reportedly stole
(if he did steal) nothing more than a wallet and a watch. However, Willie was black, his victim white, their shared home was the Deep South of the first half of the 20th century, and there the inquiry ended.
But the story didn’t end there, because Willie Francis didn’t die in the electric chair. He was strapped in and began to twitch so violently the chair jumped, but after the second blast of juice, he started to scream that he was not dying. The executioners were forced to call off the proceedings. It was possible the generator lacked sufficiently voltage, or that Willie in his youthful prime was too vigorous to die from a few jolts of electricity. Whatever the reason, it’s obvious that after this trauma, Willie should have been imprisoned for life, having survived the worst the state could inflict upon him. This had been the outcome numerous times before, and his defenders cited many such legal precedents in a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful appeal.
Willie was forced to be strapped in to Gruesome Gertie and electrocuted a second time. That time the state succeeded in its purpose to rid the world of one sweet-natured, devoutly religious, possibly retarded black man.
The facts of Willie’s case are sad and sorry. It is a tale of communal hatred and overreaching vengeance on the part of advocates of the ignoble principle of racial superiority. By executing Willie, a signal would be sent to blacks in Louisiana to continue fearing the law, and to whites, to continue to despise others on the basis of skin color and nothing else. Had Willie’s experience occurred today, he doubtless would have been spared the second, fatal date with the executioner. He was defended by white lawyers, an almost unheard-of circumstance at that time and place, and he went to his death with a smile on his face. These truths lend dignity to his otherwise unjust and senseless execution.