When Tommy Francise died of cancer Saturday while in jail awaiting trial, he left behind an open-ended murder case and unanswered questions for his family and for the families of the two Iberville Parish men he is accused of killing.
Francise, 63, was charged in 2016 with the murders of Curtis “Cochise” Smith in 1991 and George Barrett in 2002. His arrest in the cold cases drew wide attention, including a national audience with the case’s prominence on the Discovery Network show "The Killing Fields".
Francise battled stomach lining cancer during his incarceration, a condition that led his attorney, Jarrett Ambeau, to attempt unsuccessfully earlier this year to persuade a judge to allow his client's release.
Ambeau had argued Francise was too sick to remain in custody, but the judge ruled he should remain in jail until trial. Francise died Saturday in the Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel.
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Ambeau said his client steadfastly proclaimed his innocence throughout. As recently as last week, the lawyer said, Francise was asking about the case, hoping he would have a chance to publicly tell his story and allow a jury to decide whether the state had strong enough evidence to prove he committed the murders.
“We were looking forward to trying these cases, (the prosecution) may have had a case for probable cause and indictment but that’s a very low standard and the beyond a reasonable doubt standard in a jury trial is a very difficult standard, and I think that’s where the state would have failed,” Ambeau said.
Authorities intended for separate trials of Francise for the murders of Smith and Barrett. One was scheduled to begin as soon as March, Ambeau said, but the defense and prosecution had not yet figured out which would be heard first.
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The frustration at a lack of closure in the cases is a sentiment echoed on the prosecution’s side, but from a different lens.
Assistant District Attorney Tony Clayton said Wednesday that he believes the state’s case would’ve resulted in a conviction on both counts, but he hopes the fact Francise was charged and facing trial is enough justice for the families of Smith and Barrett.
“There was overwhelming evidence we were going to put forth and we believe the evidence showed beyond a reasonable doubt that he killed both of those men,” Clayton said. “It’s unfortunate and I’m sorry he’s passed, for him and his family, but I still have a job to do and I was going to do my job.”
Authorities had accused Francise of killing Smith, 30, during an argument about the victim's alleged theft of some of Francise’s tools. Smith had been working for Francise as a roofer at the time of his death.
The prosecution claimed Francise shot Smith, then stuffed his body into a 55-gallon drum. He then weighted it down and dumped it into Bayou Pigeon.
Francise is suspected of killing Barrett, 53, more than a decade later because the victim filed a workman’s compensation lawsuit against Francise.
Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said an old confession obtained during the arrest process should serve as some closure for the family, despite Francise's later decision to plead not guilty and ask to go through with a trial. He said Francise admitted to the killings years ago, at the time of his arrest, and had confessed to a witness about at least one of the murders.
"At least after 25 years he was arrested for his crimes," Stassi said. "He never got to go to trial, but he was arrested and going to be brought to justice."
Stassi said Francise came from a good family, and the case has been hard on them as well as the victims' families.
"We have theories about what happened, and what happened to (Smith's) body, but to not have closure" is unfortunate, he said.
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Clayton said the push not to release Francise from custody during his illness was not born from ill-will, but from a series of threats the prosecution says Francise sent to the District Attorney’s Office, law enforcement and witnesses.
Ambeau said Wednesday that he respected the judge’s ruling to keep Francise in the jail, and his client received good care through his final days. Francise was visited by several of his family members before his death, Ambeau said.
“I think that he deserved — as any human being or citizen or free person does — he deserved his day in court,” Ambeau said. “Even very sick Tommy was asking me over and over again, let’s try this case.”
Clayton said while it’s unfortunate the case didn’t make it to trial before Francise’s death, it’s not an anomaly in the criminal justice system for a case to be closed through the accused’s death and without judgment.
“The case is now closed, obviously, and there’s won’t be a prosecution so whatever justice the victims got, they got by Tommy facing the charges and going to court,” Clayton said. “He’s got to be judged by a higher authority now.”