Some killers get away with murder. Others pay the ultimate price.
These are the stories of 50 American killers who were put to death for their horrific crimes, including:
Ronald O'Bryan: Poisoned his own son with Halloween candy in order to collect on a life insurance policy.
Johnny Garrett: A troubled teenaged killer who raped and murdered a 76-year-old nun.
Frank Spisak Jr: A cross-dressing Nazi serial killer who prowled the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, dispensing death with his gun.
Danielle Simpson: Heartless gangster wannabe who murdered an 84-year-old woman by throwing her off a bridge.
Robert Lee Willie: A brutal sex slayer who was executed in Louisiana. Formed the basis for the lead character in the movie Dead Man Walking.
Melvin White: A vile pedophile who raped his neighbor’s 9-year-old daughter, then bludgeoned her to death with a tire iron.
John Gilbert Graham: Wanted so desperately to murder his mother that he blew up the airliner she was traveling on, killing all 44 people on board.
Thomas Piper: A respected church deacon who moonlighted as a serial killer by night, claiming four victims.
George Stinney: Just 14 years old, Stinney was the youngest person to be executed in the electric chair.
Andrew DeYoung: He wiped out his entire family so that he could gain early access his inheritance.
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Dead Men Walking
The case of James Donald French is a rather bizarre one, and not just because of his uniquely witty last words (more about that in a moment). French originally ended up in jail for the 1958 strangulation murder of a West Virginia man who picked him up while he was hitchhiking near Stroud, Oklahoma. No viable motive was ever offered for the murder. French, just 22 years old at the time and already the father of five children, had no history of violence. The judge may have taken that into consideration when sentencing him to life in prison, rather than death.
But French had no intention of spending the rest of his years behind bars. He briefly considered suicide, but found he lacked the courage to take his own life. Then he hit on a new plan. He was going to force the state into executing him, by committing another murder.
French’s chosen target was cellmate Eddie Lee Shelton, a man he later described as “stupid.” Still, whatever his feeling’s about his intended victim, French was not about to let him go to his grave without the traditional “last meal.” On October 16, 1961, the day before he intended killing Shelton, he treated him to a steak sandwich from the snack bar.
The following morning French remained in his cell, while Shelton went down to breakfast. When he returned, French looped a towel around his neck, tightening it until Shelton passed out. Then French wrapped his knotted shoelaces around Shelton's throat and finished the job. When he was arrested for the crime a short while later, he immediately stated that he wanted to be executed.
But “suicide by legal system” is not quite as simple as that, as James French would soon discover. He would have to go through three trials before he eventually got the outcome he desired.
After the first conviction French wrote letters to the appeals courts and the state Pardon and Parole Board begging to be put to death. His pleas went unheard after the appeals court overturned the verdict on grounds that the jury had been allowed to see French in chains and shackles. The second conviction was also thrown out, after the trial judge was ruled to have given improper instruction to the jury.
By now, James French must have believed that he was never going to fulfil his death wish. But at a third trial, in 1965, he was again found guilty and sentenced to die. Again French wrote to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals stating he did not want any further legal action taken on his behalf. This time the court complied with his wish.
James French was by all accounts an articulate and intelligent man, with a measured IQ of 117. While on death row, he authored a book on criminal compulsion, entitled “We.” He also wrote a book of poems. But his most famous utterance was the suggestion he gave to the journalists covering his execution at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester on August 10, 1966. “Hey fellers,” French said to the assembled press men, “How about this for a headline? French Fries!”
Moments later, James French was led to the electric chair at finally got his desired outcome, courtesy of the 2,300 volts of electricity that coursed through his body.
Like most psychopaths, Melvin White was a chameleon, a monster adept at hiding his sick obsessions behind the façade of the good neighbor and all round nice guy. Those closest to him knew different. His twelve-year-old daughter certainly did. White had already forced her to perform oral sex on him and had penetrated her with his finger. He’d also offered the child $50 per week if she would submit to his sexual demands. When she refused, he turned his attentions elsewhere. First he grabbed the breast of a teenaged visitor to his home. Then he fondled the genitals of his four-year-old niece. Eventually, he honed in on his nine-year-old neighbor, Jennifer Gravell.
White had been trying to figure out a way to get Jennifer alone for some time when his chance arrived on August 4, 1997. On that evening, Jennifer’s parents, Beth and Charlie, hosted a barbeque at their home on Avenue L in Ozona, Texas. Avenue L is a short, suburban street covering just two blocks. The community was close-knit, so all of the neighbors, including the White family, were invited. During the evening Melvin White consumed several alcoholic beverages, all the while keeping a lecherous eye on young Jennifer. At around 10:30 he left, somewhat the worse for wear and in a bad mood for having missed his chance.
At around this time Jennifer Gravell was nagging her mother to let her walk to her friend, Melissa Ivey’s house. Beth reluctantly agreed and the two girls left together. After playing for a while, Melissa’s mother told Jennifer that it was time to go home. She left at around 11:00 p.m. and promptly disappeared.
Beth Gravell began searching for her daughter just after 11. Having established that Jennifer was not with Melissa, Beth followed the route Jennifer would have taken, leading directly past the White home. She noticed that Melvin White’s truck was missing and began searching the neighborhood for it, believing that Jennifer might have gone somewhere with White. When she returned home, White was back. However, he insisted that he hadn't seen Jennifer. Beth Gravell then called the police.
By the following day, suspicion was focused firmly on White. He had been seen returning home through an alley with his vehicle lights off, and he gave inconsistent statements about where he had been the night before. When a police search dog was brought in to search for Jennifer, he went directly to White’s truck and jumped inside. White was then asked to accompany the police to the station for further questioning.
After a marathon interrogation, lasting into the afternoon, White eventually cracked and admitted to killing Jennifer. He said that he had bundled her into his truck and driven her to a park just outside the Ozona city limits. There, he’d attempted to rape her, but she had resisted. He had then taped her hands behind her back with electrical tape and continued to sexually assault her, using his fingers, and the handle of a screwdriver. Then another a vehicle pulled up behind him, forcing him to leave. He drove next to a nearby field, where he continued his assault. Eventually, he dragged Jennifer from the truck and hit her repeatedly on the head with a tire iron. Her body was dumped behind a water tank.
Armed with this confession, the police were able to find Jennifer’s body, in the exact spot that White had described. A search of his house turned up the victim’s underwear and sandals. The police also found a ball of electrical tape with strands of Jennifer’s blonde hair stuck to it.
Melvin White went on trial on June 10, 1999. Found guilty of capital murder, he was sentenced to death on June 14. After the laborious appeals process was exhausted, White was scheduled to die by lethal injection on November 3, 2005.
If the killer was distressed by his upcoming execution it did nothing to affect his appetite. For his final meal White gorged himself on; four Spanish omelets, hash brown potatoes, sliced peppers, onion rings, French fries, six pieces of buttered toast, a gallon of milk, a cheeseburger, a pork chop with gravy, fried chicken, two Cokes, peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream.
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