Frances Elaine Newton PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 February 2009 10:20

Frances Elaine Newton

Born: April 12, 1965

Died: September 14, 2005, Texas

Age: 40

Cause of death: Executed by lethal injection in Texas.

Notable because: First black woman to be executed since the Civil war. Found guilty of killing her husband and 2 children to claim on life insurance policy taken out shortly before. Proclaimed her innocence until the end. Not a clear cut case of guilt.

Frances Elaine Newton was a woman convicted of murder who was executed by lethal injection in the state of Texas for the April 7, 1987 murder of her husband, Adrian, 23, her son, Alton, 7, and daughter, Farrah, 21 months.

All three victims were shot with a .25 caliber pistol which belonged to a man Newton had been seeing. Newton claimed that a drug dealer killed the three. The Houston police presented evidence that her husband, Adrian Newton, was a drug dealer and was in debt to his supplier. Newton maintained her innocence from her first interrogation in 1987 until her execution in 2005. However, three weeks before the slayings, Newton had purchased life insurance policies on her husband, her daughter, and herself. These were each worth $50,000. She named herself as beneficiary on her husband's and daughter's policies. Newton claimed she forged her husband's signature to prevent him from discovering that money had been set aside to pay for the premiums. Newton was also found to have placed a paper bag, containing the murder weapon, in a relative's home shortly after the murders. Prosecutors cited these facts as the basis for her motive.

Two hours before her first scheduled execution on December 1, 2004 Texas Governor Rick Perry granted a 120-day reprieve to allow more time to test forensic evidence in the case. It was argued that her court-appointed attorney Ron Mock, was incompetent (he has had five professional misconduct charges brought against him and was under a suspension from the practice of law in the State of Texas until late 2007), and that no independent investigation had ever been conducted. There were also conflicting reports as to whether a second gun was recovered from the scene; ballistics reports appeared to demonstrate that a gun recovered by law enforcement and allegedly connected to Newton after the offense was the murder weapon. A relative of Newton who was incarcerated shortly after the murders claimed a person he shared a cell with boasted of killing the family. Numerous individuals, including three members of the convicting jury, expressed concern over evidence that was not presented during the trial.

On August 24, 2005, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals turned down a motion for a stay of execution. It turned down another appeal on September 9 for writ of habeas corpus. It was her fourth application.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 7-0 on September 12 not to recommend that her sentence be commuted to life imprisonment, despite the evidence raising doubt about her guilt and a letter from her husband's parents asking that her life be spared. The same day the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused an appeal of her sentence. Her new attorney, David Dow, also asked Governor Perry for a 30-day stay to prove that Newton was wrongly linked to the murder weapon. The Supreme Court of the United States declined without dissent two appeals on September 13.

The execution was carried out as scheduled on September 14, 2005, making Frances Newton the third woman executed in Texas since the resumption of capital punishment in the state in 1982. The first and second were Karla Faye Tucker and Betty Lou Beets, respectively.

Newton made no final statement and did not have a last meal request. Just over 30 protesters from the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, the National Black United Front, and the New Black Panther Party had gathered outside the prison. In addition, about 75 people protested the execution outside the governor's mansion in Austin. According to the results of a Public Information Act request submitted by Texas Moratorium Network to the office of Governor Rick Perry, 12,201 people contacted the governor asking him to stop Newton's execution and 10 people contacted him in support of her execution.

During the investigation of Frances Newton the forensic crime lab in the Houston Police Department was also experiencing intense criticism for the handling of evidence. Michael Bromwich, a former U.S. Justice Department official, said the Houston Police Department and city officials "failed to provide the crime lab with adequate resources to meet growing demands" for at least 15 years before the exposure of problems in its DNA division.


In the months before the murders, Frances and Adrian Newton were having marital problems. They were each involved in extramarital relationships, and Adrian was using drugs. In an Aug. 30 Gatesville prison interview, Newton told me that in addition to smoking marijuana, Adrian had developed a cocaine habit. "He had told me he was using cocaine, but I'd never seen that, but I saw the effects of it," she recalled. "He was home later, he was irritable, less responsible."

But she and Adrian had been together since she was a girl, and she was determined to work things out. That was on her mind on the afternoon of April 7, 1987, when she and Adrian sat down and talked. "We had decided that we were going to get through this together," she said. Adrian insisted that he wasn't using anymore, so when they were done talking and Adrian went into the living room "to watch TV ... I decided to be nosy and see if he was being honest," she recalled. Quietly, she opened the cabinet where he kept his stash.

"That's when I found the gun," she said. Newton said she immediately recalled a conversation she'd heard earlier that day, between Adrian and his brother, Sterling, who'd been staying with the family. "I couldn't hear real close, but it sounded like they'd been in some trouble," she said. "I thought I'd better take [the gun] out of there because I didn't want it to be in the house ... I didn't want him to get into any trouble." She removed the gun, placed it in a duffel bag and took it with her when she left the apartment around 6pm to run some errands, she says.

Newton says it was the last time she saw her family alive.

At 7pm, after a couple of errands, Newton arrived at her cousin Sondra Nelms' house, where the two chatted and decided to return to Newton's apartment. As Newton backed out of the drive, she saw the duffel on the back seat and realized she needed to hide it. With Nelms watching, Newton retrieved the bag and walked next door into a burned and abandoned house owned by her parents, and there (as both women later confirmed), she left the bag.

The women arrived at the apartment around 8pm, and didn't immediately realize that anything was wrong. Newton thought Adrian was napping – until she saw the blood. "As Frances walked around the couch and saw his upper torso, she immediately screamed and bolted to the children's bedroom," Nelms said in an affidavit. "Frances began to frantically scream uncontrollably. I could not calm her down enough to elicit the apartment's address."

Newton says she was shocked and dazed, but gave police as much information as possible – including the fact that she'd just removed a gun from the house. She told police about Adrian's drug habit, and that he owed some money to a dealer – which Adrian's brother, Terrence, corroborated, telling police he knew where the dealer lived. Police never pursued the lead. "To your knowledge, was the alleged drug dealer ever interviewed by anyone in connection with this case?" Newton's attorney asked Sheriff's Officer Frank Pratt at trial. "No," Pratt replied.

A bullet remained lodged in Adrian's head, meaning that the blood and brain matter would have blown back onto the gun and shooter – confirmed by a trail of blood found in the hallway. Police found no trace of residual nitrites (gunshot residue) on Newton's hands, nor on the long sleeves of the sweater she was wearing. They collected the clothing she'd worn that day. There was no blood, nor any trace of blood, on any of the items.

Frances Newton at Gatesville Prison, August 2005
Photo By Jordan Smith

The next day, April 8, according to trial records, police supposedly confirmed that the gun they had retrieved from Newton's duffel bag in the abandoned building – at her direction – matched the murder bullets. Yet Newton was not arrested until more than two weeks later. Newton says that Harris Co. Sheriff's Sgt. J.J. Freeze told her that police had actually recovered two guns; in a sworn affidavit, Newton's father Bee Henry Nelms says Freeze told him the same thing and added that Newton would "eventually be released." Nonetheless, Newton was arrested two weeks later – after she filed a claim on Adrian and Farrah's life insurance policies – and charged with the capital murder of her 21-month-old daughter.

The state's primary evidence against her was elementary: Newton had filed for insurance benefits, and the Department of Public Safety forensic technicians had detected nitrite traces near the hem of Newton's long skirt – although they couldn't say with certainty that the nitrites were not her father's garden fertilizer transferred earlier that day from the hands of her toddler daughter. For physical evidence, the state relied primarily on the supposed ballistics match to the gun Newton had hidden.

Yet in court Freeze was somewhat vague: "I believe we talked about two pistols," he testified. "I know of one for sure, and there was mention of a second one that Ms. Newton had purchased earlier."

There are serious questions about the prosecutors' timeline, which would have required Newton somehow to murder her family, clean herself of any and all blood traces and gunshot residue, and drive to her cousin's house – all in less than 30 minutes. And since her 1988 conviction, the question of a second gun has haunted Newton's case. The ballistics evidence was increasingly suspect in any case because of the recent history of the Houston PD crime lab, which has been repeatedly charged with incompetent, shoddy work, resulting in a number of exonerations and the wholesale discrediting of the lab, which remains under investigation. The lab's clouded reputation was one factor that prompted Gov. Perry to accept the BPP's recommendation to grant Newton a reprieve last winter.

Although subsequent testing supposedly confirmed the ballistics match, the search for the second gun continued. And in June, Dow argued in Newton's clemency petition, the truth finally began to leak out, and from the most unlikely place: the Harris Co. District Attorney's Office. During a brief videotaped interview with a Dutch reporter, Assistant DA Roe Wilson inadvertently confirmed the existence of a second gun. "Police recovered a gun from the apartment that belonged to the husband," Wilson acknowledged. "[It] had not been fired, it had not been involved in the offense, " she continued. "It was simply a gun [Adrian] had there; so there is no second-gun theory."

Wilson and her boss, DA Chuck Rosenthal, quickly retracted her admission. Wilson told the Houston Chronicle that she'd simply "misspoken," and Rosenthal accused Dow of fabricating the idea of a second gun "out of whole cloth." "I'm very clear," Rosenthal told The New York Times. "One gun was recovered in the case." On Aug. 24, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, dismissing Newton's most recent appeal. "The evidence in this case was more than sufficient to establish [Newton's] guilt," Judge Cathy Cochran wrote. "The various details that [Newton] suggests her trial counsel should have investigated in greater detail do not detract ... from the single crucial piece of evidence that concerns her: she disposed of the murder weapon immediately after the killing."

Dow and his University of Houston law students persisted, and late last month may have succeeded. In August, Harris Co. investigators provided testimony that police may have recovered at least two identical .25-caliber Raven Arms pistols. In separate affidavits, two police investigators recall tracing firearms recovered in connection with the murders. Officer Frank Pratt told one of Dow's students that he was assigned a gun found in the abandoned house, which he traced to a purchase by Newton's boyfriend's cousin at a local Montgomery Ward. He also discovered, he told student Frances Zeon, that the purchaser had also bought a "second, identical gun"; but he didn't follow up on the second gun, because "he felt there was no need to do so." Pratt said he'd written up a report on the gun – a report Newton's attorneys have never seen.

However, Newton's attorneys do have a police report written by Detective M. Parinello, who reported he had traced yet another firearm recovered in connection with the case to a purchase from Rebel Distributors in Humble, Texas, which he said also ended up with Newton's boyfriend. "The question arises: what recovered firearm was ... Pratt investigating?" asks the clemency petition. "Counsel does not have access to the Harris Co. Sheriff's Department's records in this case. A request made directly to that institution for all records in connection to its investigation of this offense was rejected."

From all this conflicting yet incomplete gun evidence, it seems reasonable to surmise that there is no way to know which gun was in fact the murder weapon, or which gun was delivered for ballistics tests in 1987 or this year. Since the prosecution relied so heavily on a weapon that Newton herself had delivered to them, the new evidence discovered by her attorneys completely undermines her conviction.

At press time, Harris Co. Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. John Martin was not able to reach Parinello or Pratt for comment but said that a captain who worked the Newton case had said there was only one gun recovered during the investigation. Harris Co. DA Chuck Rosenthal reiterated that, "as far as I know" there was only one gun recovered in the case. However, he said that even if investigators had recovered multiple firearms, and even if each were the same brand and caliber, the fact remains that the weapon investigators recovered from the abandoned house, which was immediately "tagged" and "tested," matched the bullets recovered from the victims. "Let's say, for conjecture's sake, that you ran down 50 or 100 guns, all associated with the case," he said. "The fact [is] that only one fired the bullets and that we know where that gun came from."






Last Updated on Friday, 21 May 2010 13:52

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