Quite often when I sit down to start compiling a case I have just researched I get to a point and think "Oh yeah, I wanted to search that issue" or will do another quick search of something else to clarify something. But is only the rarest of cases where I get a significant amount done here that I end up starting over because something I have just found becomes such an issue that I need to rethink how I communicate it here. This was just such a case.
On the surface this case seems easy. Frances Newton was convicted in 1988 for the April 1987 murder of her nearly 2 year old daughter, Farrah. Although she was not apparently charged she was also accused of murdering her 23 year old husband, Adrian and their 7 year old son, Alton at the same time. Prosecutors had the murder weapon that Frances admitted to hiding; they claimed the motive was to collect on insurance policies Frances had gotten just three weeks before; there was GSR (gun shot residue) on her clothing. Open and Shut.... Easy, Peasy, Japanesy. Not only was Frances convicted for this crime, she was sentenced to death and the State of Texas executed her on September 14, 2005.
As with many that are executed, or convicted for that matter, you're going to find things that try to convince you that the person that was executed was innocent. Sometimes I really think the movie The Life of David Gale was right on. If you have not seen it, it is about a anti-death penalty group who believes the only way to end the death penalty is to prove that someone that was innocent was executed. They do this by having a woman from the group who was terminally ill commit suicide but she does so in a way that it is almost surely murder. The group manipulates the situation to make sure all the evidence points to another member of the group and hides any evidence that does not. The only problem with this concept is that the government already knows they have executed innocent people. Then again, those that they will admit to were not in the modern era (often considered since 1976 when the death penalty was re-instated) and so it can be argued that the system is much better. As far as cases in the modern era if there is a chance of it being proved it seems that politicians, attorney's and judges will do whatever they can to prevent it being proven and if they cannot do that they dismiss the evidence. There is the case of Roger Coleman in Virginia who, when he was executed had maintained he was innocent of killing his sister in law. Many believed him and as DNA technology progressed argued to have testing despite the fact that Coleman had been executed. Attorney's fought for nearly a decade to prevent the testing. When it was finally done it was proven that Coleman was in fact guilty so it took the air out of their sails. Then in 2004 the state of Texas executed Cameron "Todd" Willingham. There seemed to be quite a bit of questions before he was executed for starting a fire in which his three daughters were killed but the Governor refused to step in. After his execution an arson expert was hired to look into the case and by all appearances after he had compiled his information and it was leaked that he had in fact disproven every point that had been made at trial pointing to arson steps were made to not allow his report to go public. In my opinion, Cameron Willingham was an innocent man executed. He is the first that I have researched (in modern era) in which I can say this with almost certainty. Frances Newton may very well be the second and it is not so ironic that she too was executed in Texas.
Texas has the highest rate of executions since 1976 in the country. In recent years they have scaled back on their executions but the more scary part is that they now lead as having the highest rate of exonerations. This was not something new that I learned while researching Frances Newton's case but I did learn much more which explains these rates more to me. First, not only is Texas hold the record for the most executions in the country, Harris County (Houston area), where Frances Newton was convicted holds the status of having the most in any county in the country. In fact at one point it was considered to be third in the country as far as rates.... only behind the entire state of Texas and the entire state of Virginia (remember Roger Coleman was from there). It seems that there was no real public defenders office, nor any real guidelines to follow until the early 2000's. A lot of the problems stemmed from this because it appears there was a "Good Old Boys" system in place. In fact, the attorney that represented Frances at her trial, Ronald Mock, was a prime example.
Ronald Mock was an attorney, although I cannot fully tell you what his specialty was. At one point he represented a woman in a personal injury claim and was sanctioned by the BAR for not just apparently taking her money but for not telling her that he did not specialize in the field. Then again, despite having nearly 20 capital murder cases handed to him by judges, he was not a specialist there either. It does seem that Mock had at least two abilities. One was drinking (he owned 11 bars at one time, one a popular hang out for lawyer and judges) and the other was schmoozing judges. The latter is what got him the cases. He would claim in 2001 he quit taking capital murder cases because there "wasn't any money in it" but in reality he was one of the reasons the new laws were enacted and was literally named as so. It was said that Mock likely had more capital cases during his time than any other "public defender" in the state. By 2000 there was a wing on death row called "The Mock Wing.' Now of course I am sure no one was ever able to prove that Mock was "in bed" with the DA and the judge to explain why Mock did little to no investigating of his cases or even interview witnesses. Quite often his case in chief ended after he called no witnesses. Even in the penalty phase where it was his job to convince the jury to not send his client to death row he would have 1 or 2 people testify at most, if at all. It was even said that in many cases he never filed for anything. And, in others, after the convictions he was often missed the deadlines for appeals. Over the course of the years Mock was disciplined several times by the Texas Bar Association. In a 2000 article he joked "I have a permanent parking spot at the grievance committee." I do not find it funny, but he apparently did. It appears Mock received his license in 1978 and by 2010 he had been reprimanded twice, put on probation three times and from December 2004 until November 2007 he was suspended and not allowed to practice at all. And yet it was Mock and attorney's like him that were handed cases that involved the lives of other people. As far as I can tell Mock is continuing to practice law but he has been called "Houston's worse defense attorney."
But here I go again rambling about the law and system so let's get back on track to Frances Newton. Now, you have heard me say that I believe she quite honestly could have been innocent of the crime she was executed for, but how about you hear about her case and make your own decision.
On April 7, 1987 Frances Newton returned to the apartment she shared with her husband Adrian, their two children and Adrian's brother, Sterling. Her cousin Sondra had accompanied her home as it neared 8 pm. Upon their arrival they found that Adrian, Alton (7) and Farrah (21 months) were dead. Adrian was on the couch with a gunshot wound to his head and a trail of blood lead the way to the bedroom where the children lay with gunshots to their chests. Sondra would testify that before she could call 911 she had to know the specific address and that it took her a while to calm Frances down to get that information. She called 911 just after 8:25.
As is the case with all crimes the police needed a timeline of things that had gone on before they could really get very far. They described Frances as very distraught at the time they arrived. I think this is important to note since we often hear stories of how people become suspects because of their behavior at the scene. It does not seem that anyone suspected Frances' behavior or emotions to be odd or faked. Now, my research indicates that Frances gave a timeline of events but while I do not agree with the prosecution in this case, I do feel as if their timeline is a bit more accurate. The strange thing is that Frances' timeline seems to have given her ample time and opportunity to commit the crime while the prosecutions timeline makes it nearly impossible. It is possible that the issues lies with Frances being under stress as she has herself leaving the apartment much earlier than the prosecution does and this is important. At any rate what could be determined between both stories is that sometime between 5:30 and 6 in the evening Adrian's brother, Sterling, who had been living with the couple came home. Frances apparently asked him to leave for a while so she and Adrian could talk. While Frances and Adrian were still married and living together, their marriage was not on good ground. In fact, they were both seeing other people. According to Frances the two sat down and discussed their marriage. It was apparently common knowledge, at least to all family members that Adrian was involved with drug use and dealing. During this talk Frances says Adrian insisted that he was no longer using (marijuana and cocaine were apparently his vices) and they had decided to work on their marriage to make it work. Sometime between 6:45 and 7:00 Adrian talked to Ramona Bell, his girlfriend, on the phone. She would testify that Adrian said he was tired and was going to bed but was waiting for Frances to leave. Bell testified at trial that Adrian did not trust Frances. Also at trial a friend of Adrian's, Alphonse Harrison testified that he called the apartment between 7:00 and 7:15. He said that Frances answered the phone and put him on hold saying she would get Adrian. He did not seem to claim that she sounded odd in anyway. According to Harrison he waited on the line for about 45 minutes and then hung up. People did not really have phones that you could really put "on hold" at that time so that probably amounted to putting the receiver down next to the phone, leaving the caller to hear noise in the background. It seems that Harrison heard nothing because I am sure if he did he would have testified to this. Frances' cousin Sondra testified that Frances arrived at her house sometime between 7 and 7:30. It was testified that depending on traffic the travel time between the two homes was anywhere from 10-15 minutes. Sondra and Frances returned to the apartment sometime between 7:45 and 8 pm. Of course in every one of these descriptions there are anywhere from 15-30 minutes of leeway. The important part is the time between 7 and 7:30.
Theoretically, Frances could have committed the murders between the time Adrian got off the phone with Ramona Bell and the time that Harrison called since the times are not exactly specific. However, we know she is still at the home until at least 7:00 to 7:15 when she answers the phone to Harrison. We know that she is at her cousins no later than 7:30 and we know Bell talked to Adrian personally sometime between 6:45 and 7:00. To be at Sondra's by 7:30 she would have had to have left her home by at least 7:20. This leaves at most a time line of 30 minutes to kill her husband, both her children, clean herself up of any blood or injuries, answer the phone sounding completely fine and leaving her home.
Then we have to look at the scene and what the later examinations tell us. First Adrian was shot in the head and it was decided that the gun must have been against his skull when he was shot. This means that there would have been a lot of blow back blood, especially since the bullet did not exit his head. There was a trail of blood leading from Adrian's body to the room in which the children were murdered. This mean regardless as to who was shot first (it was theorized Adrian was first) that the shoot had to have either injured themselves or at the very least was dripping with blood as they went to the other room. To be truthful I did not hear of blood leading out of the home but I cannot be certain of that. The children were shot in the chest and while there would have been some blood splatter there may not have been an extreme amount like there would have been with Adrian. There was no evidence apparently that anyone, cleaned themselves up after the crime in a bathroom or any of the sinks. When officers arrived on the scene it is likely they would have had a good look at Frances and if she had any injuries or blood on her they would have noticed. I must say the the fact they found no blood at all on her seems a bit suspicious to me however. According to Sondra when they got into the home and Frances found Adrian she went running to her children's bedroom and came out hysterical. I do find it odd that she would not have had any blood transfer from her children on her clothing.
As I said Sondra and Frances were interviewed almost immediately. When asked if they suspected anyone of committing the crime Frances mentioned a man she only knew as the name "Charlie." He was apparently Adrian's drug supplier and it was said that Adrian owed him about $1,500. Adrian's brother would confirm this with police and in fact told them where to find the man. Officers would later admit that they never looked for "Charlie." So why not? That is because it seems they decided fairly early that they had solved the crime, although they did not arrest Frances until nearly two weeks later. What else did they have? Well, they claimed to have found the murder weapon, the night of the crime, but not at the scene. It is unclear who whether Sondra mentioned the issue first and then Frances was asked or if Frances told the officers and Sondra confirmed what she knew. However, Frances would claim that after the talk she had with Adrian where she says they decided to work on their marriage and he proclaimed that he was no longer using drugs she had gone to the place in which he kept his 'stash.' She said she found a gun there and since she had overheard Adrian and his brother talking earlier where they sounded like they were in some trouble she decided to get the gun out of her home. She placed the gun in a duffel bag and took it with her when she left. She had then drove to Sondra's house where they sat and talked for a few minutes before deciding to go back to Frances' place. The home next to Sondra's was owned by Frances' parents. It had recently caught fire and was now abandoned. Both women stated that as they got into the car to head back to the apartment Frances saw the duffel bag and remembered the gun. She got back out of the car with the bag and took it into the abandoned home. Officers were dispatched to that house and retrieved the bag. It was said that it was a .25 caliber weapon, the same caliber as used in the crime. It was also said that by the following day investigators knew it was not just the same type, but the murder weapon, and yet they did not arrest Frances. I will get into this gun, as well as the possibility that more guns were found later on.
We all know that while the prosecution does not have to prove any sort of motive, they generally want one so they can tell a jury why someone did what they claim they did. However, they generally look for that during the preparation for trial. In this case it almost seems as they were looking for that before arresting Frances, which seems odd since they would proclaim that they had the murder weapon the night of the crime, Frances had admitted to taking it from the home and according to them they could link that gun to a man that Frances had been dating and yet they allowed her to continue to be free. Frances was arrested on April 22nd after she and her mother had filed a claim on some life insurance policies and that would be what the prosecutors would say was the motive..... money. But once again we have to look at that issue more closely and keep in mind that the jury did not get to hear the entire situation, hence some jury members would later come out publicly and complain they did not get all the evidence.
In September of 1986, some 7 months prior to the murders an agent for State Farm Insurance had approached Frances about automobile insurance and as agents like that do, she encouraged Frances to also get life insurance. At 22 of course Frances did not think that was important and she did not get any. Then, two months before the murders a home that her parents owned and apparently rented to family (the home she would later admit to placing the gun in) caught fire and three of her cousins died in the fire. They apparently did not have insurance and funds were raised for funerals. Frances' father would say that after this tragic event he encourage all of his children to have life insurance as you never know what will happen or when. Three weeks before the murders Frances did in fact get life insurance. She bought three, one for Adrian, one for Farrah and one for herself. Each policy amounted to $50,000 each. Now as far as Alton goes my research was confusing. Some information says that she did not get insurance on him as he already had some. Other information claims he did not have any. It seems odd that she would not have bought one for him also if he did not have one but apparently if there was one she does not seem to be the beneficiary listed because all account claim that she committed the murders for $100,000 in insurance, the amounts from the policies on Adrian and Farrah. The other issue with the insurance was the fact that she had forged Adrian's name on the policy for him. She would claim that she did so because if he knew she had the money for the premium he would have taken it and used it for drugs in some manner. I should note here that in December of 1985 Frances was convicted of forgery (I do not know the circumstances) and received a sentence of 3 years probation. Prosecutors would alleged obviously that she bought the policies with the plans to murder her husband and children. The jury heard about the policies and they heard about the forging of Adrian's name, but they did not hear about the house fire that took the lives of her cousins or that she had been approached recently about life insurance without her seeking the information. Little about this, or anything was argued in her trial but throughout the years it would be argued a lot. First there is the question as to why she would buy life insurance on herself also at the time. Secondly, she did not list herself as the sole beneficiary on any of them. She was listed as primary and her mother was listed as secondary. Thirdly, why would she wait two weeks to file a claim if in fact her entire motive, as the prosecution theorized was the money?
There was more. According to the prosecution the day following the murders during a search of the apartment Frances was asked to turn over the clothes she had worn the night before. They consisted of a long sleeved sweater and near ankle length skirt. A GSR test was done on the clothing (one had been done on her hands the night before and came up negative). The prosecution would claim that on the hem, at the bottom of the long skirt, there were particles of gun shot residue. They would say this was proof that she had shot a gun while wearing these clothes. The defense, finally seeming to do a little of their job, got the expert that testified to admit that it was possible it was not gun shot residue at all. It had been proven that on the day of the murders Farrah had been at her uncles house and she had been out with him while he was messing with some fertilizer for his garden. Garden fertilizer, or apparently the kind they proved he use, had the same chemicals and make as GSR. It was theorized by the defense that the positive test was a product of transfer. But, just like the insurance policies and the timeline you have to look at this evidence closer too. First I should point out that years later when Frances' new defense team wanted to retest the skirt it was impossible for two reasons. For one it had sealed in a bag along with the bloody clothing of the victims so it was contaminated and for two the state would claim that they had been required to use all that was there for the initial test. So reality is that no one knows exactly what was on that dress, but the question is, does it matter? There was no claim to have been any GSR on the long sleeves of the sweater, or anywhere else on her clothing but the hem of the skirt. If we are to believe that it is in fact GSR that would mean that every time she shot the gun she all but had her hands hanging down at her ankles and even then how do you do that and not get it other places?
So basically that is what the prosecution had and presented... murder weapon, GSR, life insurance policies. Like I said in the beginning and open and shut case. But wait, while I have shown some of the discrepancies of what they did present, what about the evidence they did not present and that was not investigated by the defense. When asked years later why his team did not investigate apparently any thing in this case Ronald Mock simply answered he was not an investigator. WHAT?? It was shown many years later that he not only never investigated any of the theories or the case, that he never questioned any witnesses, not even the ones he knew were going to be called by the prosecution. So I have to admit that with what was little done by Ronald Mock I have difficulty in determining what issues he addressed at Frances' actual trial and what issues were discovered later. Mock was Frances' lawyer for a period of 18 months leading up to her trial. By his admissions, he filed nothing in the courts (which almost unheard of), investigated and talked to no one but Frances and even still he said he saw her "maybe 3-4 time for probably an hour each time" before her trial. As jury selection was starting Frances asked to fire him. Basically the judge said Ok, but refused to delay the trial so his allowing Mock to be fired meant nothing. She had no choice but to go with him and hope like hell he did better than he appeared to be doing. Sadly he did not. As we obviously know Frances was convicted and sentenced to death.
All apparently was not as it seemed. I did address much earlier the issue that from the beginning even Adrian's brother admitted to the fact that Adrian owed his drug supplier money and the police would admit they did not investigate further. It also appears that several hours after the murders the police received an anonymous called saying they saw a red pick up at the scene of the crime around the time of the murders. The caller gave authorities the license plate number and they admitted to tracing the plate but also admitted it went no further than that. There was also a neighbor who would report that he heard a gun shot at around 7:30 on the night of the murders, coming from that direction. I found no other reports of anyone claiming to have heard gun shots but this one neighbor. Mock apparently knew of this neighbor but he chose not to present him at trial. His testimony would have brought doubt to the prosecution's timeline. Frances could not be at her home at 7:30 if she is at her cousins. Nor is it perceivable that she could have committed the murders at that time, cleaned up, then gone to the cousins house, spent time there, hid the gun and returned home by 8:00 (although I do concede that the 911 call did not come until 8:25 or so).
The largest piece of evidence that was contested (at least much later and before her execution) was the issue of the gun. The lab in which it was tested claimed that the gun found by the officers in the abandoned house was the murder weapon. I should add that this particular lab came under fire in I believe the 1990's and was accused of falsifying evidence, but it was never proven in this case. By the time the issues came up in Frances' case much of the evidence was lost or contaminated already, let alone the issues of untrustworthy people working on the case. You also have to remember that less than a year before Cameron "Todd" Willingham had been executed by the state and all of the shady information involving that case was leaking out so it was a media nightmare for the Governor and all of those involved in cases such as these at the time. It seems everyone was trying to save face. The first issue about the gun, aside from was it the murder weapon at all, was if it was the only gun found. Both Frances and her father would claim that early in the investigation they were told by one of the lead officers that another gun had been found at the scene. The prosecutor would deny there was ever another gun found. But there was more than ample evidence that not only one other gun was found, but possibly even two more. At one point someone from the DA's office was speaking a reporter many years after the trial and stated there had been another gun found at the scene. It was claimed that it was gun that belonged to Adrian and the DA said they had determined it had never been fired. When questions were brought up by the lawyers representing Frances at the time the DA's office retracted their statement saying they simply "misspoke." There does seem however to be records from officers attesting to at least two other guns besides the one that Frances had admitted to hiding. It appears that even in court when the officers ID'd the gun for the trial it was simply done by a visual ID and not the serial numbers. Still, there is more involved with the gun. As stated earlier, it was determined that when Adrian was shot the gun would have been directly against his head. And yet, there never seemed to be any blood or brain matter found on the gun the prosecution claimed was the murder weapon. Of course it could have been cleaned, but there was never any evidence that it had been, nor do we know that Frances would know how to properly clean a gun and even if she did it is unlikely that there would not be some sort of evidence left on the gun.
So was Frances Newton an innocent person executed? It is a bit hard to say but I think few can argue that she got a fair trial. We often hear the words "ineffective counsel" in appeals papers but it seems clear that Frances did in fact have ineffective counsel at her trial. Over the years at least three jury members from her trial have voiced that they may have very well voted differently had they had all the information. Even Adrian's parents, who were former prison employees, wrote a letter asking that Frances not be executed. I do not know if they believed her to be guilty however. There was at least one family member of Adrian's that seemed to believe in Frances' guilt and spoke after her execution.
There are a few things that bother me about this case but to be honest with everything that was discovered years later that was hidden or manipulated I am unsure if I can trust some of the other things. It was said that the gun that was found in the abandoned house was traced back to a man that Frances was seeing at the time of the murders. He apparently testified at the trial that the gun was kept in a drawer in his bedroom and that Frances did his laundry some times and had ample access to it. Again, like everything else in this case seems pretty simple on the surface but it doesn't erase the other issues with that gun or others, however, with all the talk with all the other guns that may have been involved there was talk that more than one may have linked back to the man. This seems odd. And while we are on the subject of the gun, if she were guilty of the crime, why would she not get rid of it before her cousin got into the car and why would either of them bring it up almost immediately after the crime was discovered? Then you have to ask where is the blood and the GSR? Why were other leads not followed? I never found any account of anyone ever saying that Frances had ever been violent or vindictive. Even Adrian's family seemed to agree with this. Her only prior issue with the law was a forgery charge that she was still on probation for it seems. We can easily say that the life insurance questions seem valid with the timing but when you add the other reasons she had to obtain the insurance it does cast a shadow of doubt and shouldn't even a shadow be enough to keep someone from being executed??
There was much made about something in this case that I have not mentioned to this point and the only reason I do now is because it seems every article or piece I read on this case mentioned the fact that Frances was a black woman. There was a big deal made that she was the first black woman since before the Civil War to be executed by the state of Texas. She was only the third woman executed by the state since the death penalty was re-instated. Personally I find her race to be of no consequence unless that race is the human race. This is simply a case that I cannot agree with the death penalty on because there are too many questions as to her guilt.