The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South
Gilbert King, Basic Civitas, 362 pp., $26
In 1946 Willie Francis, a 17-year-old African American, sat in an electric chair, about to die. The crime: He allegedly killed a white man in his hometown, St. Martinville, La.—and not just any white man, but Andrew Thomas, the well-liked pharmacist. The electric current flowed, something fritzed, Francis survived. Confused and flustered, law enforcement officials hustled him back to his cell, determined to do the deed right as soon as they could. That’s when the case, almost ignored outside St. Martinville, suddenly became a national cause célèbre. Francis’ advocates proclaimed that strapping him into the electric chair again constituted cruel and unusual punishment and maybe violated double jeopardy. Their solution: Set him free, or get him out from beneath the shadow of the death penalty. That’s where Gilbert King, a New York City journalist, picks up the story. His core query: Did Francis—a scared, not completely literate, unworldly teenager—act alone in killing Thomas, act at the behest of somebody in the white power structure with a grudge against the pharmacist, or play no role in the murder? King offers no simplistic answers, but his well-written quest resonates with contemporary debates about the death penalty, wrongful convictions and race.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.