American Portraits

Bertrand DeBlanc’s Pursuit of Justice

In this lesson, students will learn about the case of the trial and execution of Willie Francis, and will analyze the determined efforts of his attorney, Bertrand DeBlanc, to protect due process for Francis.

Founding Principles

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Narrative

Louisiana’s portable electric chair, “Gruesome Gertie,” weighed three-hundred-pounds and was stored at Louisiana State Penitentiary. When it was needed for an execution, prison staff and trustees loaded it onto a truck outfitted with a huge generator and drove it to the parish jail, where they then transferred the chair to the local execution room and ensured that it was in working order….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you promote justice for yourself and others?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the case of the trial and execution of Willie Francis, and will analyze the determined efforts of his attorney, Bertrand DeBlanc, to protect due process for Francis.

Objectives

  • Students will examine Bertrand DeBlanc’s pursuit of justice for Willie Francis.
  • Students will determine ways that they can promote justice in their actions.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of justice to their own lives.

Background

On November 8, 1944, the brutal murder of Andrew Thomas stunned the small Cajun town of St. Martinville, Louisiana. Thomas was the friendly and well-respected pharmacist whose drugstore was a popular gathering point for the whole community, and investigation of the crime began immediately. Unfortunately, virtually all of the physical evidence in the case was lost when it was sent for analysis to the FBI crime lab in Washington, D.C. There were few leads in the investigation for the next nine months.

Then, in Port Arthur, Texas, officers arrested Willie Francis—who had Thomas’s wallet in his pocket. Police had stopped the African American sixteen-year-old on suspicion of drug-dealing but found no evidence of that or any other offense. However, the wallet led to further questions, establishing that Andrew Thomas had hired Francis from time to time to do odd jobs around his house and the drugstore. The frightened teenager, who spoke with a profound stutter, maintained that he and Mr. Thomas liked each other and got along well. Eventually, Willie signed an awkwardly worded confession that he had killed Thomas, but said the reason “was a secret between me and him.” Willie Francis was transferred back to Louisiana, where he was held in prison in New Iberia, just a few miles away from his family’s home in St. Martinville.

Too poor to hire his own lawyer, Francis signed another confession. His two-day trial took place in St. Martinville, where two well-qualified local attorneys appointed by the court represented him. An all-white, all-male jury served during Francis’ case. His attorneys presented no evidence, offered no cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses, and never objected to any testimony presented against Francis. The district attorney’s scenario was that Francis had waited at Thomas’s home to ambush and rob him, though the prosecution presented no eyewitnesses to the murder, no murder weapon, no bullets collected from the crime scene, and no fingerprint evidence.

Nevertheless, the jury took only 15 minutes to find Francis guilty and sentence him to death by electrocution. Francis returned to the New Iberia prison for the next six months, never to see or hear from his attorneys again. He did not know that he had the right to appeal, nor that deadlines for challenging the verdict were passing. The court issued a death warrant ordering St. Martinville Sheriff Leonard Resweber to oversee the electrocution of Willie Francis on May 3, 1946.

Vocabulary

    • Cajun
    • Stutter
    • Cross-examination
    • Ambush
    • Eyewitness
    • Electrocution
    • Verdict
    • Penitentiary
    • Ominously
    • Motive
    • Impaneled
    • Generator
    • Convulsed
    • Parishioners
    • Subsistence
    • Eke
    • Knights of the White Camellia
    • Aspirations
    • Farce
    • Travesty
    • Impending
    • Upholding
    • Appalling
    • Revolted

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Bertrand DeBlanc’s role in the case of Willie Francis? How was DeBlanc’s effort important?
  • What was Bertrand DeBlanc’s purpose in taking the case of Willie Francis?
  • Why did DeBlanc think it was important to challenge Louisiana’s procedures?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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