Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Denno, When Willie Francis Died

When Willie Francis Died: The 'Disturbing' Story Behind One of the Eighth Amendment's Most Enduring Standards of Risk is a new essay by Deborah W. Denno, Fordham University School of Law. It appears in DEATH PENALTY STORIES, John H. Blume & Jordan M. Steiker, eds., (Foundation Press, 2009). Here's the abstract:

On May 3, 1946, in the small town of St. Martinville, Louisiana, Willie Francis, a black youth of seventeen years, sat in the state's electric chair, strapped in, ready to die. Willie was just like many convicted murderers throughout the country awaiting their punishments - poor minority teenagers stuck in a criminal justice system offering few of the legal protections available today. Yet in a matter of minutes Willie would be plucked from the masses. He would survive the electrocution, taking him from the front of the execution line to front-page news. Time and again, Willie's experience would be called a "miracle," a "blessing from God," or "divine intervention" by layperson and lawyer alike.

This Chapter presents Willie's life narrative - often framed by the themes of race, risk, and religion. It begins with an exploration of 1940s St. Martinville and Willie's early childhood. These discussions are followed by examinations of Willie's alleged murder of Andrew Thomas, St. Martinville's popular white pharmacist; Willie's arrest and interrogation in connection with the murder; the deeply flawed trial that ended in Willie's conviction; and the state's failed first attempt to execute Willie using the electric chair. The story of the fruitless appeals to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the Louisiana Pardons Board, and the U.S. Supreme Court by Willie's attorneys, Bertrand de Blanc and J. Skelly Wright, is followed by the chilling re-telling of Willie's second electrocution on May 9, 1947, which finally took his young life.

This Chapter's discussion of Willie's life and death is based on correspondence, interviews, and accounts that have never been revealed elsewhere as well as past works. Particularly compelling are numerous letters that people from all over the country wrote Willie while he was waiting in jail. These writers discussed many topics, including their reflections on racial injustice in America and the need for religious redemption, not only for Willie but also for his judgers and this country. Yet a number of letters were deeper, more private. Willie, it seems, was not only an imprint of the social and legal times, but also a projected muse of sorts to whom individuals could confide their heartfelt thoughts and wishes - about God, death, health, hopes, family, even romance.

The Chapter's Epilogue begins with an account of the author's 2007 visit to St. Martinville, where, through interviews with current residents and remaining members of Willie's family, the lasting personal impact of the Willie Francis saga is pieced together. The Epilogue continues with a history of the rise and fall of the electric chair as a method of execution and the recent popularity of lethal injection. It ends with a critical analysis of the 2008 case of Baze v. Rees, where the Court's highly splintered plurality decision relied in part on Willie's 1947 Supreme Court case, Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, in upholding the constitutionality of Kentucky's lethal injection protocol. This portion of the Epilogue argues that, in light of the passage of six decades, which heralded massive changes in criminal law and procedure, the use of Resweber as modern Eighth Amendment guidance - particularly in Baze - is troubling and inexcusable.