James D. French
(circa 1936 –
10 August 1966) was an
American criminal who was the last person executed under
Oklahoma's death penalty laws prior to Furman v. Georgia.
He was the only prisoner executed in the United States that year.
Already in prison for life, but allegedly afraid to commit
suicide, French murdered his cellmate, apparently to compel the
state to execute him.
James also had 5 children named Kayla, Taylan, Jayden, Jaycee, and
Jaylan. His girlfriend was Angel Goudy; he was loved by her.
French has been attributed with famous last words before his death
by electric chair: "How's this for a headline? 'French Fries'".
This was the last pre-Furman execution by electric chair before
John Spenkelink was electrocuted in 1979 in Florida.
James D. French
Hitchhiking across Texas in 1958, French kidnapped one of the
motorists who gave him a lift, killing his hostage near Stroud,
Following his arrest on that charge, the prisoner strangled a
cellmate in jail, resulting in his conviction and eventual
execution on two counts of first-degree murder.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern
Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
FRENCH v. STATE
1966 OK CR 84
Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals
the District Court of Pittsburg County; Robert J. Bell, Judge.
French was convicted of the crime of murder, sentenced to suffer
the death penalty, and appeals. Affirmed.
Martin, McAlester, for plaintiff in error.
Nesbitt, Atty. Gen. of Oklahoma, Charles L. Owens, Asst. Atty.
Gen., for defendant in error.
D. French, hereinafter referred to as defendant, was convicted in
the District Court of Pittsburg County, for the crime of Murder
and from the judgment and sentence fixing his punishment at death,
a timely appeal has been perfected to this Court. Since the
undisputed evidence establishes that James D. French, while
serving a sentence of life imprisonment for the crime of murder,
strangled his cellmate, Eddie Lee Shelton, to death, on the
morning of October 17, 1961, we will recite only that portion of
the record relevant to the five assignments of error urged by the
defendant on appeal.
defendant first contends that his constitutional rights were
violated when he was forced to trial clothed in prison garb and
surrounded by armed guards. He argues that:
Constitution of the State of Oklahoma (Art. 21 [art. 2], Sec. 21)
and Amendment 5 to the Constitution of the United States, in
substance, prohibit any person being compelled in any criminal
case to be a witness against himself. Here, the very presence of
this defendant, clothed in the tell-tale prison garb, and
surrounded by armed guards, being tried for his life, can only be
construed as forcing this defendant to `give testimony' as to his
alleged vile and dangerous character, and violated the spirit of
the constitutional provisions above stated.
See WARD v.
STATE, 27 Okl.Cr., 362; 228 P. 498; FRENCH v. State, Okl.Cr., 377
22 OSA, Title
22, Sec. 15 provides that `No person can be compelled in a
criminal action to be a witness against himself * * *'.
of this defendant in court, before the actual trial of jurors for
two days, in easily recognized prison garb and surrounded by armed
guards, can only be considered equal to the forcing of this
¶3 We are
of the opinion that this assignment of error is without merit and
that the Ward and French cases relied upon by the defendant are
clearly distinguishable from the facts in the instant case. In the
Ward case the defendant was charged with manufacturing
intoxicating liquor and, over objection and in the presence of the
jury, he was required to put on a coat that was found near the
whiskey still in question. The County Attorney in that case was
permitted to remark to the jury "The coat found at the still fits
the defendant like the paper on the wall." This Court held this to
be clearly violative of the defendant's constitutional right not
to give incriminating evidence against himself. In the French case
this Court reversed the conviction and sentence on the ground that
a portion of the jury saw the defendant brought into the courtroom
with his hands cuffed and his arms bound by a leather belt, and
this violated that portion of 22 O.S. 1961 § 15 [22-15] which
provides that "in no event shall he be tried before a jury while
in chains or shackles." Defendant does not allege the presence of
chains or shackles, but simply urges this Court that the fact that
he was dressed in prison clothing and accompanied by guards
constituted the act of forcing the defendant to give testimony of
his dangerous character.
¶4 In the
instant case it does not appear that the defendant or his counsel
ever requested that he be permitted to appear in civilian clothes
during his trial. Moreover, since the homicide occurred in the
State Penitentiary where both the defendant and the deceased were
serving sentences, it would have been impossible to present all
the competent facts surrounding said homicide to the jury for
their consideration, without revealing that the defendant was a
convict. The fact that the defendant took the witness stand in his
own behalf, freely admitted the bizarre details of the slaying as
part of his testimony in chief, and described in minute detail the
facts and circumstances surrounding the slaying of Eddie Lee
Shelton, further renders untenable this assignment of error.
defendant's second contention is that the trial court erred in
refusing to allow Dr. L.J. West, a physician and Professor of
Psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma Medical School, to appear
and testify as to his findings relating to the defendant's sanity
at the time the homicide occurred, as Amicus Curiae. From the
record it appears that Dr. West had followed the case closely and
had a scientific interest in it and that when he was contracted by
Mr. James Martin, counsel for the defendant, he agreed to examine
the defendant without charge if he could present his findings as a
Friend of the Court rather than as a partisan witness. Defendant
urges that when the trial court refused to allow Dr. West to
testify as Amicus Curiae, and it became necessary to offer his
expert testimony as that of a defense witness, such ruling caused
the jury to give Dr. West's testimony less weight and credibility
than that to which it was entitled. We here observe that Dr. West
was not the only qualified psychiatrist who testified at the
trial. Indeed, there were several witnesses who had examined and
observed the defendant and whose findings were not in agreement
with those of Dr. West. In Dare v. State, Okl.Cr., 378 P.2d 339,
testimony of experts is not conclusive on the issue of mental
capacity since the law makes no distinction in weighing evidence
between expert testimony and evidence of other character."
¶6 We are
of the opinion that the trial court did not err in refusing to
allow Dr. West to testify as Amicus Curiae when he had been
unilaterally selected by counsel for the defense, but that to have
allowed him to testify as Amicus Curiae would have given his
testimony more weight and credibility than it was entitled to
Defendant's next assignment of error arises out of the following
proceedings appearing at pages 142-146 of the case made:
following proceedings were held at 8:40 A.M. on June 8, 1965, in
the Chambers of Judge Robert J. Bell, out of the presence of the
jury. The Clerk and other officials of the court present:
Comes now the defendant by and through his court appointed counsel
and moves this court to grant a mistrial for the following
(1) On June
7th at the hour of 10 o'clock P.M. there was aired over Channel 8
TV, which channel is widely received in Pittsburg County, and this
defendant has reason to believe might have been seen by one or
more members of this jury. Certain pictures of the defendant James
D. French showing the said James D. French in the courthouse of
Pittsburg County, identified by name, and as defendant in the case
of State of Oklahoma vs. James D. French, he at the time being
manacled, chained and handcuffed, and at one time in the sequence
of the many feet of film, a closeup of his wrists and arms was
exhibited showing the chains around his waist which chains were
attached to handcuffs completely manacling the said James D.
(2) For the
further reasons and grounds that at the same time over Channel 9
TV Station, which is aired in Pittsburg County as Channel 3 on the
Cable TV system the same pictures showing the defendant similarly
manacled as I am duly informed, all of which constitutes a
violation of the Canon of Legal Ethics concerning photography in
and around a courtroom, and for the further reason the showing of
this defendant so manacled can very probably antagonize any of the
jurors who could have seen or heard about said pictures and would
influence the thinking of the jury and prevent the defendant from
receiving a fair trial.
you anything to say, Mr. Carman?
Comes now J. Edwin Carman, County Attorney of Pittsburg County and
states that at all times during the sequence of events alleged in
counsel's motion for mis-trial, the defendant was being conducted
chained and manacled and handled etc in conformity with the rules
of procedure in this type of chase as set down in a reversal of a
previous trial by Honorable Kirksey Nix and other members of the
Court of Criminal Appeals at that time
further alleges that the Honorable Robert J. Bell had specifically
directed that prison officials proceed in conformity with the
rules heretofore set down by said court and had also admonished
that there be no pictures taken inside the courtroom and to my
knowledge none of the sequence of pictures alleged in the motion
were so taken inside the courtroom of the Honorable Robert J.
the record shows all of that. This case has been on TV since 1961
and this is the third trial. There have been no pictures taken in
the courtroom and the photographers were admonished not to take
any. I saw Channel 8. I don't say there wasn't a chain around his
waist, but it didn't impress me. Leaving the courthouse French was
in custody of plain clothesmen. No weapons showed. Recently on
Channel 8 pictures were shown of French in the prison cell. I
can't say whether on high or death row. On yesterday in the
presence of his counsel and in the presence of James D. French a
photographer asked if pictures could be taken of the defendant out
of the courtroom and as he left the courtroom. I admonished them
they could not take the pictures against the will of the
defendant. In each instance the jury has been sent out and kept in
the jury room until after French did leave for the prison. French
gave his assent to taking of the pictures. If any were taken about
the courthouse it was with his express consent. Do you remember
that Mr. Martin?
Mr. Martin: I
remember the judge telling him any taken would be taken with his
Court: It was
just as he entered the witness room door. For that reason, among
other things, the motion for mistrial is denied. There is no
showing of any prejudice. I don't think there was any. The jury
right now is in the jury room. It was permitted to separate by
consent of counsel. We all know that prisoners of the type of this
defendant are all of necessity brought to the courthouse with
handcuffs on. They couldn't be safely handled any other way. This
is a penitentiary town. I don't know whether people watch that
station or not. Channel 9 does not come in unless a person is on
the Cable and they have to change to channel 3. So that will be
Defendant contends that the trial court's ruling in refusing to
grant a mis-trial constitutes reversible error. He argues that the
jurors probably saw the film and assuming that they saw the
defendant filmed in chains amounted to a violation of 22 O.S. § 15
[22-15], the same providing:
can be compelled in a criminal action to be witness against
himself; nor can a person charged with a public offense be
subjected before conviction to any more restraint than is
necessary for his detention to answer the charge, and in no event
shall he be tried before a jury while in chains or shackles."
¶9 We are
of the opinion that this assignment of error is without merit.
Title 22, O.S. § 853 [22-853] provides:
sworn to try an indictment or information, may, at any time before
the submission of the cause to the jury, in the discretion of the
court, be permitted to separate, or to be kept in charge of proper
officers. The officers must be sworn to keep the jurors together
until the next meeting of the court, to suffer no person to speak
to or communicate with them, nor to do so themselves, on any
subject connected with the trial, and to return them into court at
the next meeting thereof. Such officer or officers having once
been duly sworn, it is not necessary that they be resworn at each
recess or adjournment. An admonition to the officer and the jury
shall be sufficient."
alleged prejudicial error purportedly occurred during a recess
before final submission of the case to the jury and counsel for
defense had acquiesced and agreed to allow the jury to separate.
The rule is well settled that the separation of the jury for a
short period of time or overnight where not objected to by
counsel, or sworn by affidavits or testimony on motion for new
trial that defendant was prejudiced, will not vitiate a verdict.
Bilton v. Territory, 1 Okl.Cr. 566, 99 P. 163; Nowabbi v. State,
31 Okl.Cr. 158, 237 P. 868; Cox v. State, Okl.Cr., 283 P.2d 545;
Fry v. State, 91 Okl.Cr. 326, 218 P.2d 643; Martin v. State, 92
Okl.Cr. 182, 222 P.2d 534; Hobson v. State, Okl.Cr., 277 P.2d 695;
Hayes v. State, Okl.Cr., 292 P.2d 442.
was no showing made at the time the Motion for Mis-trial was
argued in chambers, nor on the Motion for New Trial, that any of
the jurors had observed the film during the recess and were
prejudiced thereby. It is abundantly clear that Judge Robert J.
Bell scrupulously followed the rules laid down in French v. State,
supra, and did not permit the filming of the defendant in the
courtroom nor did he permit the defendant to be tried while in
chains. The record affirmatively establishes that the filming
which occurred outside the courtroom, was with the express consent
of the defendant. We must therefore hold, under the authorities
above set forth, that this assignment of error is without merit.
the defendant's fourth assignment of error is not supported by the
record, we deem it unnecessary to consider it in this opinion.
leads us to a consideration of the fifth and final assignment of
error which in substance challenges the trial court's instruction
relating to defendant's criminal responsibility based on the
M'Naghten Rules and the provisions of Title 21 O.S. 1961 § 152
[21-152], and urges the adoption by this Court of the test
approved in Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469, 16 S.Ct. 353, 40
L.Ed. 499, and 165 U.S. 373, 375, 17 S.Ct. 360, 362, 41 L.Ed. 750,
the same being:
court, in the instant case, instructed the jury in the following
"No. 6. You
are instructed that in addition to his plea of not guilty there is
the further defense in this case that the defendant was at the
time of the commission of the alleged offense insane, and in this
connection you are instructed that an insane person cannot be held
liable for the commission of a crime, that is that a person who is
unable to distinguish right from wrong and to know the probable
consequences of his acts is an insane person; but you are
instructed that the defendant is presumed to be sane which
presumption will prevail until evidence is introduced by the State
or by the Defendant to raise a reasonable doubt of the sanity of
the defendant, at which time the presumption of sanity ceases and
the burden of establishing the sanity of the defendant is cast
upon the State, and that the State must prove the sanity of the
defendant in the manner and to the extent that any other material
matter must be proven; and if upon a consideration of all the
evidence, facts and circumstances which have come to your
attention during the trial you have a reasonable doubt as to the
sanity of the defendant at the time of the alleged offense, you
are instructed that you must give the defendant the benefit of
that doubt and so state in your Verdict, a proper form of same
will be furnished you, in other words as heretofore instructed,
you must find and believe from the evidence beyond a reasonable
doubt that at the time of the commission of the alleged offense
that the defendant was sane to the extent the was able to
distinguish between right and wrong and to know and understand the
nature of the act he was committing and the probable consequences
thereof, in order for you to find the defendant sane."
Instructions No. 7 and 8 were in accord with and further clarified
21 O.S. 1961 § 152 [21-152] provides:
are capable of committing crimes, except those belonging to the
under the age of seven years.
over the age of seven years, but under the age of fourteen years,
in the absence of proof that at the time of committing the act or
neglect charged against them, they knew its wrongfulness.
insane persons, and all persons of unsound mind, including persons
temporarily or partially deprived of reason, upon proof that at
the time of committing the act charged against them they were
incapable of knowing its wrongfulness. (emphasis ours)
who committed the act, or made the omission charged, under an
ignorance or mistake of fact which disproves any criminal intent.
But ignorance of the law does not excuse from punishment for its
who committed the act charged without being conscious thereof.
who committed the act, or made the omission charged, while under
involuntary subjection to the power of superiors."
21 O.S. 1961 § 154 [21-154] provides:
propensity to commit prohibited acts existing in the mind of a
person who is not shown to have been incapable of knowing the
wrongfulness of such acts, forms no defense to a prosecution
instructions given by the court amply covered the issue of
criminal responsibility and were couched in similar language to
those approved by this Court in Dare v. State, supra; Revard v.
State, Okl.Cr., 332 P.2d 967, and cases cited therein. In
accordance with the prior decisions of this Court, we are of the
opinion that this assignment of error is without merit and
reiterate our position stated in Dare v. State, supra, that
"We * * * are
unwilling, at this time, to abandon the rule so well-established
in this jurisdiction, having found nothing better that would
justify a change.
Rules, as a test for criminal responsibility, will remain the law
in this jurisdiction until the Court of Criminal Appeals can
conscientiously adopt rules, taking into consideration advances
both legal and medical and the statutes of Oklahoma relating to
criminal responsibility, which will better serve the orderly
administration of criminal justice."
examination of the record leads us to the conclusion that the
defendant was fairly tried before a jury of his peers, ably
represented by competent counsel and that the trial judge
meticulously protected his constitutional rights. The verdict of
the jury is supported by the overwhelming proof of the defendant's
guilt of the deliberate and premeditated murder of Eddie Lee
Shelton, and there being no error of law sufficient to justify
this Court in interfering with the verdict of the jury, the
judgment and sentence appealed from is affirmed.
date originally appointed for the execution of the defendant James
D. French having passed pending this appeal, it is ordered,
adjudged and decreed by this Court that the judgment and sentence
of the District Court of Pittsburg County, be carried out by the
electrocution of the defendant James D. French by the Warden of
the State Penitentiary at McAlester, Oklahoma, on Wednesday,
August 10, 1966.
BRETT, JJ., concur.
On the 8th
day of June, 1966, this Court delivered an opinion affirming the
conviction of James D. French and fixing the date of execution.
Thereafter, on the 17th day of June, 1966, Mr. James Martin,
attorney for plaintiff in error, filed a Petition for Re-Hearing
asserting the same errors complained of in his original petition
in error, and brief in support thereof. This Court carefully
considered the assignments of error contended in the petition
filed for the plaintiff in error, the brief, and the oral argument
in support thereof before rendering this decision on said June 8,
carefully re-considered the assignments of error and authorities
cited, and are of the opinion that the Petition for Re-Hearing
should be denied.
take note that the plaintiff in error, James D. French, has
corresponded with the trial court and with the Clerk of this Court
requesting that the Court-Appointed Attorney be relieved of
further obligation, duty, or authority to represent the said James
D. French in any further proceedings as attorney.
having reviewed the trial record, briefs, and oral argument, we
are of the opinion that Mr. James Martin ably represented the
plaintiff in error in the trial court, and was diligent in
perfecting the appeal therefrom; and discharged his duty with
fidelity toward the defendant in his several appearances before
this Court. Having thus discharged his obligation toward the said
James D. French, and fulfilling his obligations under the Rules of
Professional Ethics, and the Constitutions of the State of
Oklahoma and the United States; Mr. James Martin is hereby
relieved of any further obligation, duty or authority to represent
the said James D. French.
court is directed to enter an order as requested by plaintiff in
error, relieving Mr. James Martin of any further obligation, duty,
or authority to represent the said James D. French in any further
proceedings arising out of his conviction in the District Court of
Pittsburg County, Oklahoma. It is so ordered.
for Re-Hearing denied. The Clerk of this Court is directed to
issue the mandate forthwith.