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Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber

A More Humane Method?

Certainly, the history of electrocution is full of instances in which the apparatus did not work properly, and prolonged jolts of electricity were required to kill the prisoner. In some instances, these failures resulted from human error, as apparently happened in Willie Francis's case. In other cases, the difficulties simply resulted from the unreliability of electrocution itself. Human bodies differ, and differing amounts of electricity are required to put people to death.

Because so many people consider electrocution both painful and unreliable, it has been challenged as a method of execution even when the challenger is not questioning the state's right to execute someone. This is based on the Eighth Amendment's guarantee against "cruel and unusual punishment." As the Supreme Court found in an earlier case involving electrocution, In re Kemmler (1890), the Constitution prohibits such punishments as burning at the stake, disemboweling, hanging in chains, and breaking at the wheel "because they involve torture and lingering death." Electrocution, on the other hand, was specifically allowed in In re Kemmler because it did not seem to involve "more than the mere extinguishment of life."

Opponents to electrocution argued that electrocution does involve "torture and lingering death," and so it should be outlawed, just as burning at the stake has been. As detailed in a 1997 U.S. Department of Justice bulletin, 15 of the 18 states that executed prisioners used lethal injection.

Francis was also cited in a 1991 Court ruling concerning prison conditions. In that case, Wilson v. Seiter, the Court found that even if inhumane conditions did occur in a prison, correctional officials could be held responsible only if someone could prove that the conditions were the direct result of those officials' deliberate indifference. Just as in Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, the state was assumed to be free of responsibility for any cruel or unusual punishment that it did not intentionally cause.

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?