19 November 2004---UA 313/04 Death penalty / Legal concern

USA (Texas) -- Frances Elaine Newton (f), black, aged 38

Frances Newton is scheduled to be executed in Texas on 1 December 2004.
She was convicted in October 1988 of the murder of her husband and two
children in April 1987.

Frances Newton, convicted on circumstantial evidence, maintains that she
did not kill her husband and 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.

On 7 April 1987, a police officer responding to a report of a possible
shooting in a Houston apartment complex found 21- year-old Frances Newton
in her apartment with her cousin, Sondra Nelms. Also in the apartment were
the bodies of Frances Newton's husband, Adrian Newton, her seven-year-old
son, Alton, and 21-month-old daughter, Farrah. All three victims had been

At the trial, Sondra Nelms testified that on the night of the shootings
Frances Newton had placed a bag in another house shortly before the two of
them went to the Newton's apartment where they found the bodies. The bag
was later found to contain a gun, and testimony at the trial indicated
that it was the murder weapon. An expert testified that the lower front
part of Frances Newton's skirt contained nitrites, consistent with a gun
having been fired close to it. An insurance agent testified that in March
1987 Frances Newton had purchased a life insurance policy on herself, her
husband and her daughter.

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

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. (see Dead wrong: The case of Nanon Williams, child offender
facing execution on flawed evidence,

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''. A Texas Senator and the
Houston police chief have made similar calls.

At the trial, forensic experts testified that the nitrites found on
Frances Newton's skirt could have come from fertilizer. During the day of
the murder, Farrah Newton had stayed with her uncle while her mother was
at work. The uncle had a large garden, which could account for the
transfer of fertilizer particles to the lower front side of Frances
Newton's skirt. Her lawyers argue that a 120-day reprieve could be used to
conduct further forensic testing to establish whether in fact the gun was
the murder weapon or the nitrites on the skirt were derived from a source
other than gunpowder residue.

According to the reprieve petition, Adrian Newton was a drug user and drug
seller and there is evidence that some sort of trouble in this regard was
brewing before the murder. This was the reason Frances Newton gave for
removing the gun she had found in their apartment. However, the police
apparently did not investigate the possibility that the murders were

Sondra Nelms, who was with Frances Newton immediately after she was
supposed to have shot her husband and children, has signed an affidavit
expanding on her trial testimony. She describes Frances Newton's shock and
horror at finding the bodies (a reaction confirmed by the police at the
scene) and concludes that ''I know in my heart that after watching the
reaction of Frances upon discovering her husband and children, there is
absolutely no way she had any involvement in their deaths."

Texas accounts for 336 of the 944 executions carried out in the USA since
1977, 81 of whom were prosecuted in Harris County. Amnesty International
opposes the death penalty in all cases, regardless of guilt or innocence.
Since 1973, 117 people have been released from US death rows after
evidence of their innocence emerged. Others have gone to their deaths
despite serious doubts about their guilt.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible,
in your own words, including Frances Newton's prisoner number, #922, in
your appeals:

- expressing concern about the reliability of Frances Newton's conviction;

- noting that Frances Newton was prosecuted in Harris County and
ballistics evidence central to the state's case was processed at the
troubled Houston Police Department crime laboratory;

- calling on the Board and the Governor to stop this execution;

- calling for, at minimum a 120-day reprieve to allow Frances Newton's
claim of innocence to be properly investigated;

- calling for commutation of the death sentence.


Rissie Owens, Presiding Officer, Board of Pardons and Paroles, 1300 11th
St., Suite 520, P.O. Box 599, Huntsville, TX 77342-0599 Fax: 1 936 291
8367, Salutation: Dear Ms Owens

Elvis Hightower, Board Member, Board of Pardons and Paroles, 1300 11th
St., Suite 520, P.O. Box 599, Huntsville, TX 77342-0599 Fax: 1 936 291
8367, Salutation: Dear Mr Hightower

Charles Aycock, Board of Pardons and Paroles, 5809 S. Western, Suite 237,
Amarillo, TX 79110 Fax: 1 806 358 6455, Salutation: Dear Mr Aycock

Linda Garcia, Board of Pardons and Paroles, 1212 N. Velasco, Suite 201,
Angleton, TX 77515 Fax: 1 979 849 8741, Salutation: Dear Ms Garcia

Juanita Gonzalez, Board of Pardons and Paroles, 3408 S. State Hwy. 36,
Gatesville, TX 76528 Fax: 1 254 865 2629, Salutation: Dear Ms Gonzalez

Jose L. Aliseda, Board of Pardons and Paroles, 1111 West Lacy St.,
Palestine, TX 75801 Fax: 1 903 723 1441, Salutation: Dear Mr Aliseda

Governor Rick Perry, Office of the Governor, PO Box 12428, Austin, Texas
78711-2428 Fax: 1 512 463 1849. Salutation: Dear Governor


Amnesty International is a worldwide grassroots movement that promotes and
defends human rights.

This Urgent Action may be reposted if kept intact, including contact
information and stop action date (if applicable). Thank you for your help
with this appeal.

Urgent Action Network

Amnesty International USA

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Nederland CO 80466-1270

Email: uan@aiusa.org


Phone: 303 258 1170

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