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Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber

Significance

In this decision, the Court specified that electrocution in and of itself was not cruel or unusual punishment, a finding that has been used to deny other prisoners' claims that electrocution is a particularly inhumane form of execution. Also in this decision, the Court stressed that the botched electrocution attempt did not result from deliberate action by the state; this finding was used to support a 1991 decision that corrections officials are liable for inhumane conditions in prisons only if the inhumane conditions are the direct result of the deliberate indifference of these officials.

Willie Francis, a 16-year-old African American resident of St. Martinville, Louisiana, was arrested for the murder of Andrew Thomas, the town druggist. Although Francis himself, as well as later commentators, claimed that Francis was innocent and that his counsel did not adequately represent him, Francis was found guilty of first-degree murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death on 29 March 1946.

The state of Louisiana conducted its executions by means of electrocution, which had first been introduced in 1890 as a supposedly humane alternative to hanging. Defenders of electrocution held that the method offered the prisoner an instantaneous and painless death, so that death itself was the only penalty to be inflicted.

Many contemporary observers have challenged that belief, claiming that electrocution is frequently slow and painful, as well as unreliable, often requiring a second or even a third shock to be administered to the suffering prisoner. Thus, they claim, prisoners executed by electrocution face not only the punishment of death, but also the torture of being shocked and burned.

Execution was both unreliable and painful in the case of Willie Francis. According to official witness Harold Resweber:

. . . the electrocutioner turned on the switch and when he did Willie Francis' lips puffed out and he groaned and jumped so that the chair came off the floor. Apparently the switch was turned on twice and then the condemned man yelled: "Take it off. Let me breath[e]."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber - Petitioner's Claim, Decision, Significance, A Cruel And Unusual Punishment?, What Is The State's Responsibility?