Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pg. 99: Gilbert King's "The Execution of Willie Francis"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Gilbert King's The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South.

About the book, from the publisher:
On May 3, 1946, a seventeen-year-old boy was scheduled to die by the electric chair inside of a tiny red brick jail in picturesque St. Martinsville, Louisiana. Young Willie Francis had been charged with the murder of a local pharmacist. The electric chair-three hundred pounds of oak and metal- had been dubbed “Gruesome Gertie” and was moved from one jailhouse to another throughout the state of Louisiana. The switch would be thrown at 12:08 P.M., but Willie Francis did not die. Miraculously, having survived this less than cordial encounter with death, Willie was soon informed that the state would try to kill him again in six days. Letters began pouring into St. Martinsville from across the country-Americans of all colors and classes were transfixed by the fate of this young man. A Cajun lawyer just returned from WWII, Bertrand DeBlanc would take on Willie’s case-in the face of overwhelming local resistance. DeBlanc would argue the case all the way from the Bayou to the U.S. Supreme Court. In deciding Willie’s fate the courts and the country would be forced to ask questions about capital punishment that remain unresolved today.
Among the early acclaim for The Execution of Willie Francis:
“A well-wrought tale of murder, secrets, lies and state-sponsored and state-botched retribution.

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.

Injustice, inhumanity and death, all made strangely charming and unforgettable.”
--Kirkus, starred review

“Even readers who do not follow the vagaries of the criminal justice system will be sucked in by this story of Willie Francis, a 17-year-old black youth convicted of killing a local white pharmacist. From the first page to the last, King holds our attention with gripping and disturbing details. Most of all, he makes us wonder if, in view of the current controversy over the death penalty, this scenario could happen today. Highly recommended for all libraries.”
--Library Journal, starred review and Editor’s Pick

“Gilbert King transforms abstract arguments over Louisiana's right to re-execute a condemned youth into a profound story of flesh and blood. His impassioned portrait of the unlikely bond between two young Catholics, Willie Francis and his undaunted lawyer, Bertrand DeBlanc, is more than a heartwarming affirmation of love and humanity. It's a vitally important story and if you want to better understand America's troubling legacy of capital punishment, read this book.”
--Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
Read an excerpt from The Execution of Willie Francis, and learn more about the book and author at Gilbert King's website.

Gilbert King is also the author of Woman, Child For Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century, which was selected by the Detroit Free Press as one of its ten notable books of 2004. In addition, King has contributed articles to numerous newspapers and magazines, including Ring Magazine, Playboy, and the San Diego Union. He is also a photographer whose work has appeared in many U.S. and international magazines including Glamour, Jane, Vogue Japan, Harper’s Bazaar Espanol, Madame Figaro and Cosmopolitan.

Read King's New York Times Op-Ed, "Cruel and Unusual History."

The Page 99 Test: The Execution of Willie Francis.

--Marshal Zeringue