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Set to kill Frances Newton
Horror of the Texas killing machine

By Nicole Colson | September 16, 2005 | Page 16

FRANCES NEWTON has been sitting on Texas' death row for the past 17 years--for a crime that she very likely did not commit. But if Texas Gov. Rick Perry gets his way, Frances will be put to death on September 14--the first African American woman to be executed by the state of Texas since the Civil War.

Accused of shooting her husband Adrian and two children in 1987, Frances was railroaded onto death row on the flimsiest of evidence--by a system that couldn't be bothered to look for the truth.

As the Austin Chronicle recently put it, "There is no incontrovertible evidence against Newton, and the paltry evidence that does exist has been completely compromised. Moreover, her story is one more in a long line of Texas death row cases in which the prosecutions were sloppy or dishonest, the defenses incompetent or negligent, and the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial was honored only in name."

Police and prosecutors--in addition to Frances' own incompetent trial attorney--ignored her claim that her family was murdered by a drug dealer that her husband owed money to. Despite the fact that an anonymous caller the day after the shooting gave a description and license plate number of a truck parked in the driveway of the Newton home on the night of the shooting, police never followed up on the lead. Instead, they claim Frances was after life insurance money--and made her their only suspect.

The physical evidence against Newton is full of holes. "[T]here wasn't any physical evidence at all on Frances Newton," her new attorney David Dow told Democracy Now! "There wasn't anything at all on her clothes. There wasn't anything at all in her car. This is somebody who by the state's theory would have had to have killed three people with perfect marksmanship, and then completely clean the crime scene in such a way that investigating authorities could find no physical evidence tying her to the scene at all, in 20 minutes."

Because of the numerous inconsistencies in the case, last December, Frances was granted a 120-day reprieve for the evidence to be re-examined. But recent testing on her skirt, which prosecutors claim places her as the shooter at the scene of the crime, couldn't be done--because original forensic tests had not only destroyed the evidence, but Harris County officials had improperly stored the skirt by sealing it inside a bag, together with items of bloody clothing, making it worthless as evidence.

While police claim that ballistics tests confirm that a gun they say Frances had in her possession was used as the murder weapon, Dow says that police recovered at least two similar pistols during their investigation of the murders--a fact that police and prosecutors never revealed to Newton's original lawyer.

During an interview earlier this year with a Dutch reporter, Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson confirmed that "police recovered a gun from the apartment that belonged to the husband," but added that, "[It] had not been fired, it had not been involved in the offense...It was simply a gun [Adrian] had there; so there is no second-gun theory."

Wilson later claimed to have "misspoken," saying that there was no second gun recovered. But at least two separate affidavits from police investigators allude to the recovery of a second gun--though the Harris County Sheriff's Department has refused to turn over additional reports to Frances' lawyers.

What's more, in Harris County, where Frances Newton is from, the police crime lab is notorious for botching evidence in death penalty cases. Last year, Houston's chief of police was forced to call for the state to delay all executions in cases where evidence was used that had been processed at the Harris County crime lab--after hundreds of previously missing boxes of evidence were found that pertained to more than 8,000 criminal cases. More recently, according to Human Rights Watch, problems at the crime lab have included missing evidence, defective DNA analysis and inaccurate ballistic analysis.

As Dow recently asked, "Is it plausible to think that the Houston Police Department ballistics lab mixed up the weapons? In view of what we know now--from faulty ballistics evidence in other cases, to dozens of mistakes in DNA analysis, to scores of boxes of lost or missing evidence--I would think that only the most stubborn, naive or disingenuous prosecutor would say with any confidence that Newton is guilty."

Like many other inmates on death row, Frances Newton's defense was not just inadequate, but wholly incompetent. She was originally "defended" by Ron Mock, a lawyer so outrageously inept that he was later barred from taking capital cases in the state of Texas--and has since been suspended from practicing law until the year 2007. "Death Row Mock," as he was nicknamed--because he never won an acquittal in a capital case, and had at least 16 clients sentenced to death--failed to call any witnesses or do any investigation in Frances' case.

When Frances and her parents begged the trial judge to let her change attorneys, the judge agreed--but refused to grant a continuance, leaving he with no choice but to stick with Mock.

American Bar Association President Michael Greco has also written to Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to request that Frances' execution be stayed, citing Mock's gross incompetence as just one of the compelling reasons. But over the weekend, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Frances' latest motion, saying that the evidence of a second gun was not "new." The court also has rejected claims that Frances received inadequate representation in her first trial, and that the prosecution had destroyed and contaminated crucial evidence

Speaking out for Frances as her execution date approached were Tom and Virginia Louis, the parents of Frances' murdered husband Adrian. "We do not wish to suffer the loss of another family member," they wrote to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Frances' mother, Jewel Nelms, was recently admitted to the hospital when the stress of her daughter's approaching execution put her health in jeopardy "I would ask the Governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to look at the facts in the case and make a true and fair judgment--like they would want someone to do if it was their child," Jewel recently told Campaign to End the Death Penalty activist Lily Hughes.

Despite her poor health, Jewel pledged to continue fighting for Frances as the execution date loomed. "I'm hoping this is the evidence that's going to get us back in the courts, since we have enough evidence now to know that there are things that are hidden that should have been brought out in the beginning," she said. "I know for a fact that if the jury had known about a second gun, the verdict wouldn't have come out like it did...

"Everybody is really disappointed in our system here in Houston, and knowing that they've hidden things for all these years is really kind of scary. Because I don't think they just singled out Frances. I would like very much to ask: why did they feel the need to hide things? That says a lot about our system...It makes me think maybe they've been killing people that they could have saved, because they were wrongfully convicted--and that is what they are trying to do to my daughter."

Activists are planning a protest at the governor's mansion on September 14 at 5:30 p.m., 11th and Lavaca Streets in Austin. Go to www.freefrances.org and www.nodeathpenalty.org for more information.

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