Gov. Rick Perry stopped the execution of Frances Newton on Wednesday, agreeing with a rare recommendation from the parole board that she should be temporarily spared from lethal injection for the slayings of her husband and two children.
The decision came a day after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a 5-1 vote, endorsed a plea from Newton and her lawyers that the punishment be put off for 120 days and about two hours before she was scheduled to be put to death.
Newton, 39, would have been the first black woman and only the fourth female put to death in Texas since the Civil War. She denied any involvement in the fatal shootings more than 17 years ago at her family's Houston-area apartment.
Perry could have agreed with the panel or ignored the recommendation.
"After a lengthy review of the trial transcript, appellate court rulings, and clemency proceedings, I see no evidence of innocence," Perry said in a statement. "However, I am granting the additional time to allow the courts the opportunity to order a retesting of gunpowder residue on the skirt the defendant wore at the time of the murders and of the gun used in the murders.
"Although this evidence was evaluated by the jury and appellate courts, new technology is available for testing gunpowder residue."
Every death penalty case is unique and his decision was based on the issues in Newton's case, Perry said.
"Justice delayed in this case is not justice denied," Perry said. "The courts are the ultimate arbiters of evidence, and this case is now back in the hands of the courts."
Newton's lawyers said if the governor had refused their request for a delay, they would have made a last-minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the punishment.
"It was disappointing," said Roe Wilson, a Harris County assistant district attorney who handles capital case appeals and opposed the parole board's recommendation. "Obviously, our office did not think it was necessary to have a 120-day reprieve. But we will go forward with the case just as any other."
Prosecutors said her claims to the parole board and in late appeals rejected this week by state and federal courts offered nothing new.
The former tax accounting clerk may be innocent, her lawyers said, and additional scientific testing needed to be conducted on the murder weapon and on the clothing she was wearing the night of the slayings.
The .25-caliber pistol and blue dress prosecutors said had traces of gunpowder residue were introduced as evidence at her trial, where appeals attorneys insisted her legal representation was shoddy.
The board historically has turned aside such requests from condemned prisoners. In May, the panel recommended the life of a mentally ill convicted murderer be spared. Perry, however, rejected the vote of the board, whose members he appoints, and the inmate was executed.
Perry's decision then marked the first time a Texas governor rejected a parole board's clemency recommendation for a condemned killer since executions resumed in the state in 1982. During that period, 336 inmates received lethal injection, two of them women: Karla Faye Tucker in 1998 and Betty Lou Beets two years later. Before them, it was 1863 when a woman executed, hanged for the ax slaying of a South Texas rancher.
The Texas governor is empowered to issue a one-time 30-day stay of execution, but beyond that, any pardon, commutation or clemency first must be recommended by the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Prosecutors said Newton hoped to collect $100,000 in life insurance benefits on policies she recently had purchased, including one where she forged her the signature of her husband, Adrian, 23, who was killed along with their son Alton, 7, and daughter Farrah, 20 months.
Newton acknowledged hiding the existence of the policy from her husband but said from death row she didn't want him to know she had been saving money to purchase the insurance.
"With my husband, if he knew we had any extra money at all, it would be gone," she said told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Newton maintained a drug dealer she knew only as Charlie, whom Adrian Newton owed $500, was likely responsible for the 1987 slayings.
"Somebody murdered my family and they haven't had to account for that," Newton said.
Newton would have been the 24th Texas inmate executed this year, equaling the total number of executions in the state last year. A record 40 were injected in 2000.
Nationally, she'd have been the 11th woman executed and the first since Florida injected a woman in 2002.