Thursday, September 15, 2005

An incredibly sad textbook example...

...of why the death penalty is absolutely abhorrent.

Frances Newton was killed last night by the State of Texas.

Newton is executed for slaying her family
Texas executes woman for killing family
Without Evidence: Executing Frances Newton

There are three reasons why yesterday's execution of Ms. Newton was unjustified.
-1- Capital punishment, the premeditated killing of a citizen by the state, is barbarous, hideous, and unconscionable. Regardless of the innocence or guilt of those being put to death, I reject the thought that it is ever our place to take the life of another. It is wrong. Yes, what I am saying is that if Frances Newton had killed her husband and children she still should not be put to death because the practice itself is anathema to a civilized society.

-2- The capital punishment system, as it exists in the United States, - the process itself - is unfair and critically flawed. These flaws make the system itself untenable. As Justice Blackmun famously wrote in changing his vote on the constitutionality of the death penalty, "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." (I will include more of J. Blackmun's dissent in this case in a subsequent post.) The death penalty process is not fair. The process Frances Newton went through was not fair. For example:
-a- There is no public defender's office in Harris County for indigent defendants to be able to gain adequate and due representation.
-b- Ms. Newton's was not represented by competent or effective trial counsel. Ron Mock was appointed by the court to represent Ms. Newton at trial. Mock was wholly incompetent. Ms. Newton actually filed a motion to the court - almost a year before she was convicted - to dismiss her appointed counsel for failure to meet with her and failure to investigate her case. That motion was denied without hearing. The week before trial, Ms. Newton's family scraped together money to hire competent counsel...on the day that the trial was to begin, the trial court held a hearing to discuss substitute counsel. Mock was asked about a witness who was willing to testify to Ms. Newton's innocence and he replied that he was not an investigator. He was asked what witnesses he planned to call, and he had none. This was the VERY DAY THE TRIAL WAS TO START. Mock had investigated nothing, interviewed no one, no defense witnesses had been subpoenaed. Incredibly, the court was willing to grant the change in counsel - but allowed no continuance for new counsel to investigate and prepare. Is there any question that Ms. Newton could have received competent and effective representation in this situation? If there is, then let me add this:
(1) Second-chair defense trial-counsel signed an affidavit saying in regard to Ron Mock's representation that she, "unequivocally state[s] that Frances Newton did not receive effective representation at her trial."
(2) Mock was appointed to represented 16 people who have gone to death row.
(3) Most incredibly, Ron Mock has been brought before the State Bar at least five times for professional misconduct, for which he has been fined, and suspended multiple times and since barred from capital cases - AND he is currently suspended from practicing law until late 2007.
And this is what the State of Texas considers competent counsel. Courts have since refused to listen to the argument about ineffectiveness of counsel; and refused to examine any of the testimony and evidence that was ignored by the incompetent trial-counsel Ron Mock.

-3- In addition to those more theoretical concerns, there were (and are) serious questions as to the actual innocence of Frances Newton.
-a- The primary motive the State used as circumstantial evidence of Ms. Newton's guilt was an insurance policy that was taken out on the life of her husband and children which was to pay her $100,000. This policy was signed not long before the murders occurred. As damning as that sounds, what did not come out (due to incompetence of counsel) was that Ms. Newton had gone to the insurance agent to procure auto insurance...and the life insurance was up-sold to her at that time - she did not instigate the purchase of the life insurance policy.
-b- Ms. Newton has stated that she believes that her family may have been killed by a drug dealer to whom her husband owed money. Her husband's brother informed the police that they were dealing drugs, did owe a drug dealer money, and gave the police the name and address of the drug dealer. The police never followed this lead, and never investigated the involvement of that drug dealer.
-c- Two pieces of evidence circumstantially link Ms. Newton to the murders. First, the Houston Crime Lab determined that nitrates on the hem of her skirt could have been nitrates from the firing of a weapon. Again, this is damning on its face. There are, however, terrible inconsistencies and inaccuracies in this physical evidence.
(1) The lab testified that the nitrates may also have been from fertilizer used in a garden;
(2) "The ballistics evidence was increasingly suspect in any case because of the recent history of the Houston PD crime lab, which has been repeatedly charged with incompetent, shoddy work, resulting in a number of exonerations and the wholesale discrediting of the lab, which remains under investigation." The lab itself has been de-licensed, and is still not back open for use in criminal trials. Multiple convictions have been overturned due to the status of the crime lab.
(3) The nitrates evidence which was tested by this discredited crime lab was "inadvertently" destroyed by the State.
(4) There was no blood or other substance found on Ms. Newton or the clothes she wore that day, although there was blood all over the house, hallway, and bedrooms (again, this was not effectively addressed at trial due to a combination of incompetent counsel and the State withholding vital documents).
(5) Since the trial, those clothes were mixed with clothes of the victims by the State, again destroying that evidence for any further testing.
This State destroyed evidence should have been enough, in and of itself, to have prevented an execution.
-d- The second piece of evidence linking Ms. Newton to the crime was a gun which was determined by the discredited crime lab as being the murder weapon - which she informed police, and has never denied, that she had removed from the house and hidden elsewhere earlier in the day. Once again, damning on its face, but under full inspection this "evidence" again falls short:
(1) There is testimony from members of the investigation at the time that another, and possibly two more guns were recovered in the investigation. Those other guns have never been produced by the Harris County DA's office, and they denied the existence of those other guns.
(2) Only this summer, the Harris County Assistant DA stated in a video-taped interview that, "Police recovered a gun from the apartment that belonged to the husband." This Assistant DA, and the DA both scrambled to cover, saying that it was misspoken.
(3) There are documents related to the confiscation and limited investigation of this second gun, and even a third gun, which were supposedly recovered, but those documents were never released to defense counsel.

Was Frances Newton guilty of these murders? Was she innocent? I have no idea. There is undoubtedly damning evidence against her. Regardless, this case shows very specifically that the death penalty process in the United States is broken...and it cannot be fixed. There is no "fair" way to take a life. (Especially when that life is poor and black and in Texas.) As I wrote in an earlier post:
The [capital punishment] system is wrong because it is arbitrary, because it is not justice being carried out, it is 'lightening striking.' ... [T]he death penalty is not the rule of law, it is the rule of the mob.

You can access and read the Application for Post-conviction Writ of Habeas Corpus and Motion for Stay of Execution here.

Read some other posts on capital punishment:
5th Circuit follows Supreme Court directive...
Believe it or not...
Go buy this book...
Capital Punishment in Texas...
Will Texas lose the death penalty?
Lethal Injustice...
Software Models Capital Punishment Outcomes

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