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Last-minute reprieve granted
Death machine in Texas under fire

By Lily Hughes | December 10, 2004 | Page 2

IN A surprise move, Texas Gov. Rick Perry granted a reprieve to Texas death row prisoner Frances Newton, two hours before she was scheduled to die December 1.

Newton's lawyers had asked for the reprieve to gain time to retest ballistic evidence that could prove her innocence in the murder of her husband and two children in 1987. Ballistic testing in the case was done by the Harris County crime lab, now under investigation for gross incompetence, faulty testimony in trials and mishandling of evidence.

The victims were all shot at close range, yet initial testing found no evidence of blood on the gun or on Newton's clothes, and no gunpowder burns on her hands. The defense has also shown that there would have been no time for Newton to have cleaned up the scene before calling police.

Newton's original defense attorney was none other than Ron Mock--who has been sanctioned by the state bar association at least three times and is no longer allowed to try death penalty cases. Mock--who also represented Shaka Sankofa, also known as Gary Graham, an innocent man put to death by Texas in 2000--called no witnesses and did no investigation in the case, saying in court, "I'm a lawyer, not an investigator."

Perry granted the 120-day reprieve based on the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Although the Board has recommended clemency or commutation very rarely, the reprieve is unprecedented.

It also comes on the heels of increased scrutiny of the Texas death penalty system by the U.S. Supreme Court. Recent rulings by the Supreme Court rebuked both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court for their handling of appeals in capital cases in Texas. At 3 percent, Texas has the lowest reversal rate of any state. Both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the 5th Circuit turned down Newton's appeal.

The Houston crime lab scandal and recent high-profile cases in the media spotlight are beginning to take a toll. The number of death sentences being pursued by prosecutors is steadily declining.

The stay of execution for Frances Newton gives abolitionists another small victory against the Texas death penalty system.

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