May 3rd, 1946

Black Teen Survives Louisiana Electric Chair

In 1945, a black sixteen-year-old named Willie Francis was sentenced to death in St. Martinville, Louisiana. Willie was convicted of killing Andrew Thomas, a fifty-three-year-old Cajun pharmacist, and the case revealed many flaws in the state’s justice system: Willie’s jury included no black jurors; his court-appointed attorneys did not present a defense and declined to cross-examine the State's witnesses; and the State’s case relied on a confession Willie made to police with no lawyer present.

Willie’s conviction was upheld, and his execution went forward on May 3, 1946. But when executioners strapped Willie into “Gruesome Gertie,” the electric chair that had been used to execute twenty-three people, he convulsed and screamed, and did not die. When the sheriff ordered the electricity shut off, Willie was taken back to his cell, spared and hopeful. Reflecting on the experience afterward, Willie wrote:

“I didn’t think about my whole life like at the picture show. Just, ‘Willie, you’re going outta this world in this bad chair.’ Sometimes I thought it so loud it hurt my head and when they put the black bag over my head I was all locked up inside the bag with the loud thinking . . . I felt a burning in my head and my left leg and I jumped against the straps. When the straps kept cutting me I hoped I was alive and I asked the electric man to let me breathe. That’s when they took the bag off my head.”

Within an hour of the failed execution, Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis ordered the chair fixed and a second try scheduled for one week later. Betrand DeBlanc, a young Cajun lawyer returning from war, took on the boy’s case and challenged the state’s right to try to kill Willie again. Before the United States Supreme Court, Mr. DeBlanc argued that a second electrocution would violate double jeopardy protections and constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal in Francis v. Resweber in January 1947. On May 9, 1947, at 12:05 p.m., Willie Francis died in Louisiana’s electric chair.


May 3rd, 1995

Alabama Brings Back Prison Chain Gangs

Chain gangs were implemented across the South as a solution to violence and abuse that prisoners endured in the system of convict leasing in which white land owners and for-profit companies were allowed to purchase prisoners to work in cotton fields and in mines. During Reconstruction, Southerners embraced chain gangs as a way to repair the South's economy and infrastructure. Following years of complaints of the abuse that prisoners suffered in the system, chain gangs were abolished in every state by the late 1950s.

On May 3, 1995, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) reinstated chain gangs at Limestone Correctional Facility. Four hundred men were shackled together at the ankles with leg irons in groups of five, guarded by prison officers armed with shotguns, and forced to work on Alabama highways. If inmates refused to work on the chain gain, they were tied to a hitching post and denied access to water or bathrooms. ADOC Commissioner Ronald Jones and Alabama Governor Forrest “Fob” James defended the decision to reinstate chain gangs, by arguing that the punishment would deter other people from committing crimes in Alabama. Seven states followed Alabama's lead and reintroduced chain gangs in their penal systems.

In 1996, after an inmate on a chain gang was shot and killed by an officer and amid growing reports of injures and safety concerns, the Alabama Department of Corrections agreed to permanently ban chain gangs. However, prisoner work crews continue in Alabama and individual inmates may have their legs chained together. In 2012, Alabama passed a law expanding prison labor; that same year, one prisoner working on a road crew was struck by a car and killed, while another prisoner was severely injured. Several other states, including Florida and Arizona, continue to use some variation of prisoner work crews.


May 3rd, 1913

California Law Prohibits Asian Immigrants from Owning Land

On May 3, 1913, California enacted the Alien Land Law, barring Asian immigrants from owning land. California tightened the law further in 1920 and 1923, barring the leasing of land and land ownership by American-born children of Asian immigrant parents or by corporations controlled by Asian immigrants. These laws were supported by the California press, as well as the Japanese and Korean (later Asiatic) Exclusion League and the Anti-Jap Laundry League (both founded by labor unions) - groups claiming tens of thousands of members.

However, animosity for Asian immigrants was not solely local. In May 1912, President Woodrow Wilson wrote to a California backer: “In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration I stand for the national policy of exclusion (or restricted immigration). ... We cannot make a homogeneous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race. ... Oriental coolieism will give us another race problem to solve, and surely we have had our lesson.”

California did not stand alone. Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming all enacted discriminatory laws restricting Asians’ rights to hold land in America. In 1923, the United States Supreme Court reviewed various versions of the discriminatory land laws – and upheld every single one. Most of these discriminatory state laws remained in place until the 1950s, though Kansas and New Mexico did not repeal their provisions until 2002 and 2006, respectively. Florida has to date refused to repeal a constitutional provision authorizing its government to enact such discriminatory legislation.