HOUSTON — On Dec. 1 Texas Gov. Rick Perry agreed with a rare recommendation from his state parole board that he intervene and stop a Harris County woman from being executed by lethal injection. With only two hours to go before Frances Newton, 39, was to be put to death, Perry postponed her execution for 120 days to allow for new ballistics tests that might exonerate her.
Newton would have been the first African American woman executed in Texas in modern times. Human rights and anti-death-penalty groups had mounted an energetic campaign in her defense.
Sixteen years ago, Newton was convicted of the 1987 shooting deaths of her husband and two children. She has been on death row ever since. She maintains her innocence.
Newton’s attorneys, working with the Texas Innocence Project, requested more time to retest ballistics evidence that was originally tested by the Houston Police Department’s crime laboratory. The HPD crime lab is notorious for its faulty procedures and contamination of evidence.
Her attorneys also said her first, court-appointed lawyer, Ron Mock, was incompetent. The Houston Chronicle reported that Mock admitted just a few days before Newton’s trial that he had interviewed no witnesses and had filed no motions on her behalf. Mock has been disciplined by the state bar six times and suspended twice.
New data from the U.S. Department of Justice show that Texas has maintained a steady rate of death sentences since the late 1980s, although the nationwide rate fell to a 30-year low in 2003. Texas currently accounts for 1 in 5 of the nation’s death sentences, sending an average of 34 people to death row each year.
Legal experts say the state’s judicial process is one reason why it consistently sentences more people to death than anywhere else in the country. Most states give jurors a choice between death and a life sentence without parole. Texas jurors have to choose between death and a life sentence with a possible parole in 40 years.
Texas also has one of the nation’s highest rates of executions, topped only by Virginia. About 35 percent of those receiving the death penalty between 1977 and 2002 were executed. Since 1977, 333 men and two women have been executed in Texas, including 152 while George W. Bush was governor.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed two Texas death sentences on Nov. 15. It rebuked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for not following previous orders to ensure that juries consider mitigating evidence, such as a convicted person’s intellectual deficits and emotional problems, before meting out punishment. Dissenting were justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Some Texas legal experts believe the Supreme Court is sending a message that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is so wrong that it requires intervention and supervision in its application of the death penalty.
Death penalty activists have urged phone calls to Gov. Perry to thank him for intervening in the Newton case and to ask that he work with the Texas Legislature to halt all executions by enacting a moratorium and establishing a commission to study the state’s administration of capital punishment. Perry’s office number is (512) 463-2000.
The author can be reached at PHill2@houston.rr.com.