The Two Deaths of Willie Francis

BY REBECCA AGULE

Willie Francis counts down the days to his execution.

The discomfort caused by a thermostat set much too high created an oddly appropriate backdrop for students attending the American Constitution Society’s Thursday, November 9, screening of director Allen Durand’s documentary, “Willie Francis Must Die Again.” The intimate atmosphere allowed attendees to share a close moment with the director in way not possible in a more formal setting.

Raised in St. Martinville, a French Catholic town in southern Cajun Louisiana, Durand produced and directed the film, which centers on his town’s most famous execution. Or perhaps more properly put, executions. Actor Danny Glover narrated the unique and haunting story of young Willie Francis, who survived the electric chair to which he was sentenced in 1946, before being strapped in again and succumbing to it in 1947.

Shot mostly as a combination of black and white stills and first person interviews, with music evocative of the time and the region, the film recounts the initial crime, the trial, the first botched execution, an appeal to the United States Supreme Court and the eventual successful execution.

Sister Helen Prejean, best known for her book Dead Man Walking, speaks throughout the film, offering her own insight on the death penalty and certain failings of the United States adversarial system.

“We play God,” Prejean said. “We go behind closed doors and decide if a fellow human being lives or dies.”

Durand utilized quotes from renowned philosophers to emphasize the cruel nature of the ordeal and its consequences. Sir Roger L’Estrange is quoted as saying, “The greatest of all injustice is that which goes under the name of law.”

One night in 1945, St. Martinville pharmacist, Andrew Thomas, was murdered in his bed, and when the police failed to make an arrest or even find real leads, sixteen year-old Francis was charged with the crime. After arresting Francis on unrelated and false drug charges, the police claimed to extract from him a confession in the Thomas murder. This confession constituted the bulk of the prosecution’s case in a trial that lasted just over a day.

Francis’ defense was anything but effective. Over the course of the short trial, his court-appointed defense attorney changed Francis’ plea from not-guilty to guilty without his consent, did not make an opening statement, called not a single witness, raised no objections, and mounted nothing that could be termed a defense. An all-white, all-male jury took just fifteen minutes to convict Francis and sentenced him to death by electrocution. All pertinent deadlines passed without a single appeal being filed on Francis’s behalf.

Following the first failed execution, Francis’ father reached out to Louisiana attorney Bertrand DeBlanc, who in turn contacted Washington lawyer, J. Skelly Wright. Together to two men brought the case before the United States Supreme Court, where Wright argued before the bench. Wright, filmmaker Durand’s great uncle, also served as the director’s personal connection to the case.

On November 8, 1946, Wright presented the case, mostly based on the 8th Amendment. Following much internal debate and vote-changing, the court voted 5-4 to allow the second execution.

But much like Francis himself, the Supreme Court’s interest in the case would not die easily. After casting the deciding fifth vote, a torn Justice Felix Frankfurter began a behind-the-scenes campaign of his own to commute Francis’ sentence to life in prison. In a highly unorthodox display of extrajudicial involvement, Justice Frankfurter contacted friends in the Louisiana legal community and involved himself well beyond the cloaks of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court itself encouraged Francis to bring his case again, but by that point, exhausted from emotion and tired of the pain he saw in his family as they awaited his fate, Francis refused, instead accepting his coming death, right or wrong. And on May 9, 1947, the initial sentence, handed down long before, was carried out.

Time allowed the violent truth to rise to the top. First it was revealed that the two men charged with operating the electric chair for the first execution had been intoxicated both during the assembly and the procedure. Then it slowly began to come out that, not only had Francis been innocent, but many people had information as to the identity of the real murderers. But these revelations came much too late to save the young man.

The close of the film covers the changed lives of those connected to the case. Skelly Wright became an appeals court judge of great renown, well recognized for his belief that, “the ultimate test is goodness.” After serving as a District Attorney, DeBlanc remained so impacted by the Francis case that he could not continue as a prosecutor, instead becoming the head of the indigent defendant’s office, a career move rarely seen before or after.

Following the screening, Durand answered all questions posed him. In a low, rolling southern accent, he explained his cinematic decisions, as well as his influences.

Durand further provided historical context for the film, describing the extreme isolation of southern Louisiana in the mid-20th century. “Prior to the Civil Rights movement on the 1960’s, there wasn’t an opportunity for a minority to really do anything. They were totally powerless.”

When asked about the local attitude at the time, the director candidly quoted his own father, “If you were black and they wanted you to confess, you confessed.”

The documentary film community recognized the potency of Durand’s piece. It won Best Documentary at the 2006 Memphis International Film Festival, as well as Best Social Justice Documentary at the 2006 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

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