Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Frances Newton is scheduled to be executed tomorrow, and there is a good chance she is innocent. Newton has been on Texas's death row since 1988, and has maintained her innocence all these years in the murders of her husband and two children .

Her current lawyers, who have only recently taken the case, are appealing for a 120-day reprieve of execution in order to be able to properly investigate her claim, an investigation they say has not been carried out to date because of the inadequacy of her prior legal representation. (Her trial lawyer in '88 has since been barred by the state from representing defendants in cases where the death penalty may be applied.)

The petition for a 120-day reprieve argues that the testimony of the state's trial witnesses, taken together, suggests that either Frances Newton was not in the apartment at the time of the shooting, or that if she was she would have had, at most, 20 minutes to shoot her husband and children, clean herself up, compose herself, and leave the apartment to go to her cousin's home. There was no blood found on Frances Newton's clothing, hands, or car, despite the fact that the victims had been shot at close range. No gunpowder residue was found on her hands or sweater.
There was also no evidence that someone had undertaken a cleanup at the apartment.

Frances Newton was prosecuted in Harris County, where the city of Houston is located. In March 2003, an independent audit of the Houston Police Department (HPD) crime laboratory revealed serious defects in the lab's DNA analysis section, including poorly trained staff relying on outdated scientific techniques. Several cases suggest that the lab's problems extended beyond its DNA section, for example into its ballistics expertise.

The ballistics evidence central to the Newton case was processed at the HPD. On 21 October 2004, a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said that there should be ''a moratorium on all executions in cases where convictions were based on evidence from the HPD crime lab until the reliability of the evidence has been verified''.

For information about the petition to the governor to allow the reprieve, go here.