HOUSTON, Dec. 1 - Hours before she was to have been
executed for the murders of her husband and children, a
Texas woman was spared on Wednesday when Gov. Rick Perry
granted her a 120-day reprieve to review disputed evidence
that convicted her.
Although Mr. Perry said that after a lengthy review of the
case "I see no evidence of innocence," he accepted a
recommendation made Tuesday by the Board of Pardons and
Paroles to delay the execution of the woman, Frances
The delay is to be used to apply "new technology" in a
retesting of a gun prosecutors say Ms. Newton used and a
skirt she was wearing at the time of the killings in 1987.
Ms. Newton, 39, who has maintained her innocence
throughout her 16 years on death row, took the news with a
smile at the execution unit, in Huntsville, a prison
spokeswoman said, and said she was not surprised because "I
was hopeful someone would hear us." One of her lawyers,
John LaGrappe, said that he had spoken to her earlier and
that she was praying with her mother and members of a
Baptist prison ministry and was resigned to her death,
saying "I will finally be reunited with my family."
The state charged that on April 7, 1987, Ms. Newton shot
and killed her husband, Adrian, and their two small
children, Alton and Farrah, for $100,000 in life insurance.
Ms. Newton said that she had come home to find them
murdered and that a gun she had earlier found in the house
and removed had nothing to do with the killings. Her
lawyers at the time failed to investigate her claims, her
appeals lawyers later claimed.
Ms. Newton's lead lawyer, David R. Dow, who said he was on
the phone with the United States Supreme Court seeking a
stay when the governor's action was announced about 4 p.m.,
"I am extremely relieved and pleased that Governor Perry
recognizes that the question about her innocence is an
actual question," he said. Mr. Dow, a University of Houston
law professor whose Innocence Network represents inmates
claiming wrongful conviction, said his next step was to
arrange for retesting of the gun and the skirt.
District Attorney Charles A. Rosenthal Jr. of Harris
County, whose office prosecuted Ms. Newton and who had
opposed a reprieve, said, "I'm very disappointed." Mr.
Rosenthal noted that earlier this week both the Texas Court
of Criminal Appeals and the United States Court of Appeals
for the Fifth Circuit turned down a stay of execution.
In an effort to sway the governor, Mr. Rosenthal said, he
submitted an affidavit on Wednesday from the Texas
Department of Public Safety saying that the test on the
skirt, which it had originally performed for the trial in
1988, could not be duplicated today.
"Rick didn't call me," he said of the governor, a fellow
Republican. "I kind of thought he would."
The skirt had tested positive for nitrites, which
prosecutors said showed that Ms. Newton had fired a gun.
But the defense claimed the chemical was only residue of
The .25-caliber automatic pistol that Ms. Newton said she
had removed from the house was tested at the Houston police
crime laboratory and presented in court as the weapon used
in the killings. But the lab was later tarnished by
revelations of sloppy procedures. Ms. Newton's lawyers have
claimed that the gun should show traces of the victims'
blood if fired in the point-blank manner described by the
state and that no such evidence was produced.
Mr. Rosenthal said he was confident that any review would
back up the state's case, which he said had already
survived the scrutiny "of 50 or 60 people."
"On the other hand," he said, "it doesn't make any
difference to me if she is executed today or in 120 days."
He said that the state court that tried Ms. Newton in 1988
could set a new execution date around April, after the
reprieve runs out.
Mr. Dow said the next step was to talk to the district
attorney's office about gaining access to the gun and the
skirt. He said it would be difficult after so long to
investigate other leads.
The reprieve capped days of jockeying over the case and put
off what would have been Texas's 24th execution of 2004.
The tension built Tuesday after the pardons board, in an
action the governor's office could cite no precedent for,
recommended 5 to 1, without comment, that Governor Perry
grant Ms. Newton a 120-day delay.
Among those appealing to Mr. Perry to grant it was Mayor
Bill White of Houston, a Democrat, who faxed him a letter
on Wednesday saying, "as a supporter of capital punishment,
I believe it absolutely necessary that there are legal
safeguards that would remove any questions or doubts that
an innocent person may be executed."
Mr. Perry acted about 4 p.m., his office releasing a
statement quoting him as saying: "Justice delayed in this
case is not justice denied. The courts are the ultimate
arbiters of evidence, and this case is now back in the
hands of the courts."
Soon, Ms. Newton was on her way back to the women's death
row in Gatesville, near Waco, where she is the longest
resident of the nine women there.