Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber

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329 U.S. 459 (1947), argued 18 Nov. 1946, decided 13 Jan. 1947 by vote of 5 to 4; Reed for the Court, Burton in dissent. In November 1944, Andrew Thomas, a white St. Martinsville, Louisiana, druggist, was murdered, apparently by fifteen-year-old Willie Francis, who was black. With little help from his court appointed attorneys, Francis was quickly convicted and condemned to execution in the electric chair. But when Francis sat in it on 3 May 1946, it malfunctioned; the two-minute jolt of electricity failed to kill (or even disable) him. Reached by phone, the governor scheduled a new execution date for the next week.

But attorneys responding to the pleas of the inmate's father took the case to the Supreme Court. They argued that the attempt to execute Francis again would constitute double jeopardy, and, more importantly, cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The justices refused to block a second execution attempt. The swing vote was cast in a concurring opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter, usually a death penalty foe.

Petitions for rehearing and clemency were unsuccessful, and one year and six days after the original blunder, Willie Francis again sat in the electric chair. This time it worked.

Michael L. Radelet

Subjects: Law.

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