A few weeks after the end of World War II, Willie Francis, a black man, was convicted of murder in a Louisiana court and was sentenced to death. Six months later, after a ceremonial last supper and farewell visits from friends and relatives, he was strapped into the electric chair, and while the official witnesses watched and the prison chaplain prayed, the executioner pulled the switch.
But Willie Francis did not die, and when it became clear that for some unknown reason he had survived the electric current that shot through his body, he was removed from the chair and returned to his cell. A new death warrant was signed, but his lawyers rushed to court arguing that a second try would be cruel and unusual punishment, double jeopardy and a violation of due process.
The Supreme Court rejected all these arguments and approved the second execution, though four dissenting justices called the procedure "death by installments."
Now that almost 40 years have passed since the Francis case you would think that our sensibilities might have changed. While the Supreme Court once said that the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment was only meant to deter "burning at the stake, crucifixion, breaking on the wheel, or the like," we strive with great delicacy to develop methods of killing that are -- at least -- quick and painless. Capital punishment is not, in and of itself cruel, we are told, so long as it does not involve torture or lingering death.
Anyone who has been comfortable believing these assumptions -- that capital punishment is a necessary evil but is carried out as swiftly and comfortably as possible -- must have been made uneasy by this week's news from Georgia. Like Willie Francis, Alpha Otis Stephens was a murderer who survived a first electrocution attempt. Here's how the Associated Press described his last moments:
"A few seconds after a mask was placed over his head, the first charge was applied causing his body to snap forward and his fists to clench. His body slumped when the current stopped two minutes later, but shortly afterward witnesses saw him struggle to breathe. In the six minutes allowed for the body to cool before doctors could examine it, Mr. Stephens took about 23 breaths. At 12:26 a.m. two doctors examined him and said he was alive. A second two-minute charge was administered at 12:28 a.m." after which he finally died.
What a sickening procedure for any civilized society to sanction.