A well-wrought tale of murder, secrets, lies and state-sponsored and state-botched retribution.
In addition to accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, editions of Louisiana newspapers carried news of the arrest of Willie Francis, a black, stuttering, semi-literate teenager accused of the murder of small-town pharmacist Andrew Thomas. After the detention, trial and conviction, which were riddled with constitutional offenses shocking to a post–Warren Court citizenry, Francis incredibly survived the electric chair, thanks to the malfeasance of his drunken executioners. Was the State of Louisiana legally entitled to attempt the execution again? The unsuccessful battle to save Francis’s life constitutes the heart of King’s story and features three heroes: Bertrand DeBlanc, friend of the victim and grandson of a state Supreme Court justice who fought tirelessly and for little pay; A.P. Tureaud, pioneering NAACP attorney; and J. Skelly Wright, who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and who was destined to become one of the great judges in American history. The informed and reader-friendly discussion of the legal issues and maneuvers attending the Francis appeal, including the intriguing backstage drama at the nation’s highest court, is reason enough to recommend this story, but King’s masterful applications of Bayou State color set this book apart. Ably navigating the bewildering gradations of heritage and race that were so important in postwar Louisiana, he drenches these pages with the lore of the “cursed” Cajun town of St. Martinville, locus of the Thomas murder and terminus of the fictional “Evangeline,” made famous in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem of the same name. King (Woman, Child For Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century, 2004) expertly juxtaposes the electric chair’s adoption as a supposedly humane alternative to the barbarity of hanging with the grisly experience of the probably guilty young man who finally died in the lap of the killing machine nicknamed “Gruesome Gertie.”
Injustice, inhumanity and death, all made strangely charming and unforgettable.