The Texas Killing Machine

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, but it was the callousness, disorganization and racism that resulted in countless lives being lost.

Now the state of Texas is set to take another casualty-Frances Newton. Frances is set to be executed in Texas on September 14th. She, like many of the victims in Louisiana, is a poor, Black woman who has been failed by our government. So many of the victims in Louisiana could have gotten out if they had money, if they had a car, if they had help and support.

One could say the same of Frances. If she had a decent trial attorney, she most likely never would have been convicted, let alone sentenced to death. If she had the money to have had a full investigation done prior to trial, and if she wasn’t left prey to the forensic lab that took a main piece of evidence and contaminated it by sticking it in with a bunch of other clothing, Frances would likely not be facing an execution date.

Like many of those left to die in Louisiana, Frances is one of the people most vulnerable in our criminal justice system-she is Black and poor. As Bryan Stevenson, an anti-death penalty attorney and outspoken capital punishment opponent, puts it, “You’re more likely to get the death penalty if you’re poor, black and innocent, than if you’re rich, white and guilty.”

Now, Frances’ new attorney has unraveled the case and shown that Frances is-by all accounts-innocent. So why is Governor Perry going forward with the execution? Hasn’t there been enough death already?

What’s more, the reasons that compelled Perry to grant Frances a stay back in December 2004 have only grown.

Frances Newton was accused of killing her husband and children for the “insurance money” back in 1987. But Frances’ new lawyer, David Dow, the head of the Innocence Network at the University of Houston Law Center, has discovered evidence that proves otherwise.

Frances believes her husband was killed by a drug dealer, who he owed $1,500. Frances’ brother thought this as well, and told police that he could lead them to the drug dealer’s home. But the police never investigated that lead. And even though Frances passed a lie detector test, even though she had no blood on her clothes or car (in what was a very bloody crime), and no gunpowder residue was found on her hands, the police arrested her. According to prosecutors, Frances was supposed to have killed her family, cleaned up all of the evidence, and then returned to the crime scene, all in 30 minutes.

The gross incompetence with which this case was handled is hard to read about. Ron Mock, who was Frances’ trial lawyer, did virtually no work on the case. On the day of trial, Mock could not name one witness he had interviewed. He called no witnesses. The parents of Frances’ husband-a victim in the crime-asked to be called to testify on behalf of Frances, but they were never called.

According to a recent article in the Austin Chronicle, “Ron Mock has since been brought before the state bar’s disciplinary board at least five times on various charges of professional misconduct, for which he has been fined and sometimes suspended; he is currently suspended from practicing law until late 2007.”

Activists in Houston held a protest at Mock’s house, and they plan to hold more protests. In Austin, activists plan to surround the governor’s mansion in Texas with crime scene tape ­ to indicate the real scene of the crime if the state proceeds with this execution.

Our rescue and relief efforts were woefully inadequate in reaching out to the suffering and dying in Louisiana. And we see our elected officials having trouble admitting they did anything wrong.

Far too often, we see the same stubbornness within our criminal justice system.

Our constitution says that everyone has a right to effective council. Frances never got this. After 19 years, we should be able to give Frances the fair trial she is entitled to, but was denied.

Frances’ mother Jewel Nelms said in a recent interview, “I would ask the governor and 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. I’m thankful for the stay of execution in December, and I’m confident that when they see the new evidence that they will also realize that it really needs to go back to court.”

That would be the right thing to do.

MARLENE MARTIN is national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.