Texas grants reprieve to woman on death row


HOUSTON - In a highly unusual move and just hours before she was to have been put to death, Texas Gov. Rick Perry halted yesterday the execution of Frances Newton, convicted in 1988 of killing her husband and two children.

In granting a 120-day reprieve, Perry said he saw "no evidence of innocence" in Newton's court records, but he agreed to allow time so that additional testing could be done on the gunpowder evidence that helped to convict her.

"Although this evidence was evaluated by the jury and appellate courts, new technology is available for testing," Perry said in a statement. "Justice delayed in this case is not justice denied."

David Dow, one of Newton's lawyers and a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said "the facts of this case are very dramatic and the unusual action is a result of the dramatic facts."

During the 17 years Newton's case went through federal and state courts, her lawyers say, the circumstantial evidence against her was never independently investigated. Her original defense attorney, Ron Mock, interviewed no witnesses before the trial. He has since has been suspended three times by the Texas Bar Association and is no longer allowed to take court-appointed capital murder cases.

Ballistics tests linking Newton to the gun that killed Adrian Newton, 23, Alton, 7, and Farrah, 1, were conducted by the now-discredited Houston Police Department crime lab. Nitrite traces found on Newton's clothing - which could have come from a gun blast or common garden fertilizer - can now be more precisely tested to determine the source.

Newton maintained that a drug dealer she knew only as "Charlie" killed her family in a dispute over money owed by her husband, also a dealer. Prosecutors argued that Newton killed her family to collect $100,000 in life insurance benefits.

Responding to a petition filed by her lawyers this month, the Texas parole board on Tuesday made the rare recommendation to Perry to delay Newton's execution so that her claims of innocence could be investigated.

Newton's lawyers will work with the district attorney's office to arrange to retest the gunpowder and ballistics evidence, Dow said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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