Death Date Nears for Texas Woman Convicted in Slaying

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Alton was 7. Farrah was almost 2.

The first letters of their names were meant to reflect the initials of their dad and mom — A and F, Adrian and Frances.

The last time Frances Newton saw her husband and children was more than 17 years ago, the evening of April 7, 1987, five days before her 22nd birthday. She'd run a few errands and was accompanied by a cousin as she returned to her Harris County apartment.

Adrian, Alton and Farrah were dead in the home. Two weeks later, Newton was arrested and charged with murdering her family.

Convicted and condemned, she's scheduled to become the first black woman executed in Texas on Dec. 1. In a state that annually leads the nation in executions, Newton will become the fourth woman executed in Texas since executions resumed in 1976, the 11th nationally.

But Newton says she didn't murder her family. She believes the real killer is a drug dealer named "Charlie" who was upset with her husband for not repaying a $500 debt.

She says she remembers walking into the apartment, looking for her family, then finding Adrian's bloody body on the couch. Adrian, 23, had been shot in the head. Alton and Farrah were shot in the chest.

"That's the worst feeling I've ever had," said Newton, 39. "When I walked in and I found them, it was a scary feeling. It was overwhelming, very frightening."

With no eyewitnesses and no confession, prosecutors built a circumstantial case.

The murder weapon, a .25-caliber automatic pistol, was found in a blue bag in an abandoned house that belonged to Newton's parents. The blue dress Newton wore that night was found to have possible gunpowder residue on it. Three weeks before the deaths, Newton took out $50,000 life insurance policies on herself, her husband and her daughter, with herself as beneficiary. A day before her arrest, she applied for the death benefits.

The insurance money was the motive, prosecutors said. The jury convicted her in 1988.

"This is wrong, so wrong," Newton said she thought at the time.

She said the gun belonged to her husband, who had dealt drugs in the past, and she hid at the abandoned house to keep him from getting into trouble. The gunpowder residue, she said, really was fertilizer rubbed on her dress by her daughter, who stayed with relatives during the day while she worked at a tax accounting office. Her uncle had a large garden, where he used fertilizer, and toddler Farrah would have collected it on her shoes.

The insurance policies, she said, were a long-standing goal she was able to achieve by saving money unknown to her husband.

Newton's case is the kind that shakes the confidence in the criminal justice system, according to lawyers trying to help her, and provides fodder for death penalty opponents questioning the competence of legal help, particularly for the poor.

Newton's court-appointed lead trial attorney was Ronald G. Mock, notorious for having his clients, perhaps as many as a dozen, wind up on death row.

Mock has been suspended or placed on probation by the State Bar of Texas at least three times since he first was licensed in 1978. Earlier this year he was reprimanded for taking a case he wasn't competent to handle, accepting payment, then refusing to refund the money.

Mock, whose office telephone number is disconnected, couldn't be reached, for comment.

"I had nothing, really, to work with other than Frances saying that she didn't do it," he told the Houston Chronicle in July when Newton received her execution date.

Newton, in a recent interview at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Mountain View Unit just north of Gatesville, where the state's nine condemned women are imprisoned, said when she was arrested, she got the sense that Mock was confident she wouldn't be there long.

But as she remained in jail for months awaiting trial, her confidence waned. Newton's mother contacted another Houston lawyer, David Eisen. With jury selection finally under way, Eisen asked the Harris County court if he could join the case, but asked for time to investigate. Mock, he said, had conducted no investigation and never even talked to one witness. The court refused.

"She didn't get a fair trial, not even close," Eisen said.

Adrian's drug history, Newton said, was tied to the slayings. He was desperate to come up with $500 to repay a drug debt to a man she knew only as "Charlie," so anguished he uncharacteristically approached Newton's mother for the cash.

"That was very surprising," Newton said. "It showed me he really needed it when he went to her."

John LaGrappe, a Houston lawyer trying to get Newton's case investigated, said Charlie is a Colombian drug dealer he's trying to locate.

The courts in previous appeals rejected arguments that Newton's early legal help was poor, said Roe Wilson, an assistant district attorney in Harris County.

"All of the claims, all the allegations and all the evidence that's referred to is not newly discovered," Wilson said. "These were facts that were available and known at the time of trial and the jury obviously rejected."

David Dow, a University of Houston law professor also working on Newton's case, appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for permission to conduct additional ballistics tests and a nitrate analysis on the gun and dress. Improved technology, not available at the time of her trial, should aid her, LaGrappe said.

On Nov. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review her case.

"It's a great, great tragedy," LaGrappe said. "Our criminal justice system has conspired to sabotage this woman's right to due process."

KBTX will have an exclusive interview with Newton Tuesday night on News 3 Tonight at 10pm.