Willie Francis and the immorality of second — and all — executions

February 5, 2024 5:30 am

A photograph from 2001 of the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville shows an electric chair and gurney. Ohio has since stopped allowing condemned prisoners to choose electrocution instead of lethal injection. The state has had no executions since 2018. A bill was recently introduced in the Ohio legislature to use nitrogen hypoxia to carry out executions. (Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images)

Gov. Kay Ivey, March 7, 2023. (Alabama Reflector photo by Stew Milne)

Kay Ivey is the governor of Alabama. According to the Almanac of American Politics (2024), Ms. Ivey is 79 years old, Republican, Baptist, single, graduated from Auburn University, and has a long record of public service beginning with being the “reading clerk” in Alabama’s House of Representatives. She was reelected in 2022 with 67% of the vote. 

What the Almanac profile does not tell you is that, despite her grandmotherly appearance, Gov. Ivey is a stone-cold killer. And that if she cannot kill you with one death warrant, she’ll issue a second one.

I refer, of course, to the Jan. 25 execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was put to death by the state of Alabama in a sort of national experiment using a heretofore untried method of killing, nitrogen hypoxia.

 This new process is the equivalent of tying a plastic bag around someone’s head and watching him suffocate. After two minutes of “violently shaking and writhing on the gurney,” media witnesses said, it took almost 30 minutes for a semi-conscious Mr. Smith to die. The Catholic priest who accompanied the condemned man to the tortured conclusion of his earthly life called it “a horror show.”

Kenneth Eugene Smith

This was actually Mr. Smith’s second execution after a previous attempt was “botched” when prison staff, despite several attempts, couldn’t find a vein for a lethal injection. Undeterred, Gov. Ivey signed another death warrant and the show went on. Since capital punishment in the 27 states (including Kentucky) where it is permitted is all about retaliation, not “justice,” it is important to note that Mr. Smith was asphyxiated for being one of three men who brutally assaulted and then stabbed to death a helpless woman, Elizabeth Sennett; the trio had been hired by her estranged minister-husband. (The preacher committed suicide before he could be charged.) This paid co-assassin — he received all of $1,000 — never deserved to breathe free air again. 

The second attempt to kill Mr. Smith, green-lighted by a 6-3 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court, recalled to mind the gruesome account of the attempted execution of Willie Francis in 1946. Mr. Francis, an African-American, was the youngest of 13 children of Fred and Louise Francis who lived in St. Martinville, Louisiana. On Nov. 8, 1944, a popular town druggist, Andrew Thomas, was shot and killed in the driveway of his home. Willie, a former store employee, was eventually arrested and “confessed” — not once but twice — while in police custody. 

Sixteen-year-old Willie was charged with capital murder, as an adult, and his trial began six days after his arraignment. His court-appointed “lawyers” nevertheless announced “ready.” An all-white jury was seated. The defense “lawyers” did not challenge the voluntariness of the “confessions.” They conducted no cross-examination of the state’s witnesses. If they were so inclined (they were not), the “attorneys” couldn’t have asked for ballistics testing because the bullets taken from the victim’s body had “disappeared” before trial. Factual incongruities that could have been pursued went unpursued. Unsurprisingly, the child was convicted and sentenced to death. There was no appeal.

On May 3, 1946, Willie Francis, now 17, was strapped into a portable electric chair brought to his jail. When the chair was turned on, the electricity coursing through Willie’s body was not sufficient to kill him, but, as the sheriff observed, “That boy really got a shock when they turned that machine on.” 

With the curses of the would-be executioners accompanying him, Willie was returned to his jail cell. In short order, Louisiana set out to kill the teen-ager again. This time, real lawyers intervened — a determined local attorney, Bertrand DeBlanc, and J. Skelly Wright (later a prominent federal judge) in Washington, D.C. who sought, successfully, a review by the U.S. Supreme Court after Louisiana courts rejected Mr. DeBlanc’s habeas corpus petition.

Kentucky death row inmates spend years waiting for executions that aren’t coming

Tragically, on Jan. 13, 1947, only four justices could summon their consciences to find that a second barbaric execution was “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by our Bill of Rights. “How many deliberate and intentional reapplications of electric current does it take to produce a cruel, unusual, and unconstitutional punishment?” asked Justice Harold Burton in dissent. (Regrettably, two Kentuckians were among the five-man majority, Stanley Reed and Chief Justice Fred Vinson.) 

On May 9, 1947, 18-year-old Willie Francis was electrocuted.

The death penalty, regardless of how “humane” the method (humane for whom, us?), is an extremely hypocritical look for a country that says it reveres the sanctity of all human life. Killing the killers is a contradiction of that principle, sets a poor example for our children, and has never been shown to deter a single homicide. Until the day comes when this pernicious practice is abolished forever, the continued use of state-sanctioned killing, anywhere in the United States, is a national, moral disgrace.

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