Gov. OK's Death Row Reprieve

Four-month stay gives Frances Newton's lawyers time to review suspect evidence

Breaking with his tradition of turning a blind eye to matters of justice, Gov. Rick Perry on Dec. 2 accepted the 5-1 recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and granted a 120-day reprieve to Frances Elaine Newton. The stay, which came just two hours before Newton was to be executed, will offer her defender, University of Houston Law Center professor David Dow, a chance to have additional forensic testing completed on evidence in her case – and perhaps to prove Newton is actually innocent of the 1987 Houston murder for which she was condemned to die.

Newton, 39, was convicted of killing her husband, Adrian, and her two children, Alton, 7, and Farrah Elaine, 21 months, in order to collect $100,000 in life insurance. Newton has maintained her innocence and said that she believed a drug dealer, known to her only as Charlie, actually killed her family over money Adrian owed him. Gunshot residue tests conducted on Newton's hands hours after the murder tested negative and no blood stains were found on her clothing; however, testing found traces of nitrate on a skirt Newton had been wearing, which prosecutors claimed was gunshot residue. Newton's attorneys claim the nitrate was actually residue from garden fertilizer.

The stay will also afford investigators a chance to reperform ballistics tests on a .25-caliber pistol that Newton claimed she found inside her house after the murders; the original ballistics tests were conducted by the infamous Houston Police Department crime lab. According to a press release from the governor's office, Perry granted the stay not because court records suggested there was any "evidence of innocence," but rather because there is now "new technology" available for gunshot residue testing. Predictably, Harris Co. District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal was righteous, telling reporters he was "disappointed" with the reprieve, but certain the conviction would stand. It "doesn't make any difference to me if she is executed today or in 120 days," he told The New York Times.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Frances Elaine Newton, death penalty, Rick Perry, Board of Pardons and Paroles, David Dow, Chuck Rosenthal

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