Texas Woman Facing Execution Had One of the Worst of Texas' Lawyers

As Texas prepares to execute Frances Newton on September 14, the Austin American-Statesman editorialized about the poor quality of representation she received at trial and the doubts that this raises about her conviction. The paper noted:

Maybe Frances Newton shot her husband and two children to death in 1987. Maybe she didn't. The public cannot be certain of her guilt, but she's going to die for the crime anyway.

Newton was denied a basic requirement for a fair trial — a competent lawyer. Her attorney at trial was the notorious Ron Mock, whose shoddy work in capital murder trials is well known in legal circles. He has been repeatedly disciplined by the State Bar of Texas, and has since been disqualified from handling capital cases. No less than 16 people whom Mock represented were sent to death row. Mock apparently did no investigation of Newton's claims of innocence. When asked by a trial judge, he could not name a single witness he had interviewed on Newton's behalf.

How many times must this scene be repeated before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state Board of Pardons and Parole or the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes in death sentences won on defense incompetence?

A competent lawyer should be provided for defendants facing the death penalty. The rule of thumb in Texas seems to be that only those who can afford a competent lawyer are entitled to one. Newton couldn't afford a good lawyer, so the state appointed Mock to represent her.

She is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday despite plenty of doubt her new lawyers have raised regarding the triple murder for which she was convicted. Tom and Virginia Louis, the parents of the man Newton was convicted of killing, have their doubts.

"We are the parents of Adrian Newton and the grandparents of Alton and Farrah Newton . . . We were willing to testify on Frances' behalf, but Frances' defense lawyer never approached us," they said in a letter to the Board of Pardons and Parole asking for leniency.

Indigent defendants must rely on the state system. The state's court-appointed lawyer system has improved significantly in the past five years because of legislation aimed at weeding out incompetent lawyers and recruiting better lawyers for people who can't afford to hire their own. The 2001 Texas Fair Defense Act does set minimum requirements for attorneys representing capital murder defendants. (The emphasis is on "minimum.")

But those who were convicted before 2001 were under a system that declared any lawyer with a pulse and law license competent. That included lawyers who slept during trial or were doped up as they prepared for trial. It included lawyers who did little or no investigation.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refuses to hear any new evidence or facts in Newton's case — and many others like it — because those facts were raised after court deadlines expired.

And that's the rub. The state appeals court is not deciding Newton's case based on the merits of new facts or legal issues. It has rejected her appeal because she missed a deadline.

We've said it before, but it's worth repeating: Race, ethnicity, income and geography are all factors in the imposition of death sentences.

As long as Texas has a death penalty, capital defendants should have access to competent legal counsel. Newton didn't get that. For that reason, she should be spared.

(Austin American-Statesman, September 12, 2005).  See Women and Representation.

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ABA President Calls for Stay of Texas Woman's Execution


August 31, 2005

BY FAX: 512/463-1849
The Honorable Rick Perry
Office of the Governor
State Capitol
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428

BY FAX: 512/463-8120
Chairwoman Rissie Owens
Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles
Executive Clemency Unit
Capital Section
P.O. Box 13401
Austin, Texas 78711

Re: Francis Newton

Dear Governor Perry and Chairwoman Owens:

As President of the American Bar Association, I write to
express the concern of the ABA about the case of Francis
Newton, an African-American woman who is scheduled to be
executed on September 14, 2005. Our concern arises from
our understanding that arguably significant and compelling
new evidence regarding Ms. Newton's case has not yet been
evaluated by Texas courts. This new evidence includes forensic
evidence and evidence of a lack of motive, both of which are
made more serious by Ms. Newton's continuing and unwavering
claim of innocence.

We are also concerned that this evidence was not discovered
earlier because of the negligence of her appointed lawyer, Ron
Mock. Several months after Mr. Mock's appointment, Ms. Newton
wrote a letter to the trial judge expressing concern that no
investigation of her case was occurring. On the day of trial, Mr.
Mock could not name one witness he had interviewed. He did
no investigation whatsoever, and therefore, did not place before
the jury the evidence that now casts doubt on Ms. Newton's
involvement in this crime. Mr. Mock was later barred from
handling capital cases.

Longstanding ABA policy states the importance of providing
all criminal defendants with qualified, competent counsel and
protecting the innocent from wrongful execution. An abundance
of caution should be exercised whenever there is doubt. Last
December, you agreed to a 120 day delay of Ms. Newton's
execution because you were persuaded that such doubt existed.
Some testing was impossible because the evidence had been contaminated.
More testing has been requested and compelling
new evidence has been discovered since December.

We are not in a position to comment on the merits of the new
evidence. That is a role for officials in your state. But we believe that carrying out the execution of Francis Newton without a full
review of this new evidence is inconsistent with principles of
fundamental fairness and due process. Because reasonable
doubt exists, we urge you to vacate her execution date so that
the newly discovered evidence can be tested and properly
evaluated by Texas courts.

Thank you for your consideration.

Respectfully yours,

Michael S. Greco
American Bar Association


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"I am comparing the death penalty system to the levees in New Orleans. They told us they would work, but they didn't."

-Sr. Helen Prejean, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 9, 2005
Useful Links:
videoC-Span's Washington Journal: Discussion of the Supreme Court and the Death Penalty with DPIC Director Richard Dieter and Robert Blecker (Aug. 31, 2005)

dot Mother Jones article on the second thoughts of the man who introduced lethal injection-Need code: MJ9ASW

dot ABA President's Letter to Gov. Perry regarding upcoming execution of Frances Newton

There were 54 women on death row across the country as of July 1, 2005 (NAACP Legal Defense Fund).

The next scheduled execution of a woman is:
Frances Newton in Texas on Sept. 14, 2005.

There have been 10 executions of women in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The most recent such execution was:
Aileen Wuornos in Florida on October 9, 2002.

Among the women executed were:

Karla Faye Tucker, right, with Sister Helen Prejean
Executed February 3, 1998 in Texas

Betty Lou Beets
Executed February 24, 2000 in Texas

Wanda Jean Allen
Executed January 11, 2001 in Oklahoma

bakerLena Baker was executed in Georgia in 1945. The state has called her execution "a grevious error" and will grant her a pardon.

See DPIC's Women and the Death Penalty
See also Prof. Victor Streib's "Death Penalty for Female Offenders" (pdf)

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Texas Woman Faces Execution Despite Questions Regarding Her Guilt

Update: Frances Newton was executed in Texas on September 14, 2005.  As Texas prepares to execute Frances Newton on September 14, her attorneys have raised questions in a clemency petition about her guilt based on new evidence, including conflicting accounts of whether investigators recovered a second gun at the crime scene. Newton, who would be the first black woman executed in the state since the Civil War, was sentenced to death for the 1987 killings of her husband and her two children.

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Georgia Board To Pardon Woman 60 Years After Her Execution

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has announced that it will issue a formal pardon this month for Lena Baker (pictured), the only woman executed in the state during the 20th century. The document, signed by all five of the current board members, will note that the parole board's 1945 decision to deny Baker clemency and allow her execution was "a grievous error, as this case called out for mercy." Baker, an African American, was executed for the murder of Ernest Knight, a white man who hired her . Baker was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die in one day by an all-white, all-male jury. Baker claimed she shot Knight in self-defense after he locked her in his gristmill and threatened her with a metal pipe. The pardon notes that Baker "could have been charged with voluntary manslaughter, rather than murder, for the death of E.B. Knight." The average sentence for voluntary manslaughter is 15 years in prison. Baker's picture and her last words are currently displayed near the retired electric chair at a museum at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.

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BOOKS: Clemency
  • A new book by Professor Austin Sarat focuses on clemency's role in the U.S. criminal justice system: "Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution." According to U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, "This thoughtful book should be read by every citizen who cares about the issue, and by every governor and president entrusted with the power to punish or pardon." In "Mercy on Trial," Sarat reviews the complexities of clemency and examines issues such as rehabilitation. (Princeton University Press, 2005).

See Books on the Death Penalty. See also Clemency.


  • "Justice Denied, Clemency Appeals in Death Penalty Cases" - In "Justice Denied: Clemency Appeals in Death Penalty Cases," (Northeastern University Press, 2002) Professor Cathleen Burnett examines Missouri's administration of the death penalty. While researching all 50 applications for executive clemency submitted to Missouri governors since the state's reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977, Burnett discovered a series of problems directly related to flawed police investigations, instances of prosecutorial misconduct, examples of inadequate defense counsel, and the appellate court's review of capital cases. She also investigated the political ramifications of death penalty cases for trial judges in capital cases and Missouri governors. See the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Press Release.

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Mentally Ill Woman Dies After 20 Years on Nevada's Death Row

Priscilla Joyce Ford, who suffered from a variety of mental illnesses and who was the lone woman on Nevada's death row for more than twenty years, died of apparent complications from emphysema on January 29, 2005. A prison spokesman said, "She had been quiet for so long. No one ever had any problems with her (in prison). I don't remember hearing about her violating any rules." Ford was sentenced to death row after she was convicted of killing 6 people and injuring 23 others by driving her car down a crowded Reno sidewalk on Thanksgiving Day 1980. Following the crime, a judge ordered that she receive mental health treatment so she would be competent to stand trial. Ford had been a gifted teacher until her mental illness emerged around 1970. During her 6-month trial, it was revealed that Ford had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with violent tendencies, but she would not stay on the medication that controlled her condition. She had been treated and released from seven different hospitals prior to her crime. Ford told people she was Christ, that she was the reincarnation of the founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and that she had God-like powers and would smite her enemies.

Washoe County Assistant District Attorney John Helzer said Ford's case and the subsequent appeals cost taxpayers a lot of money and unfairly caused victims' families to relive the tragedy. "That was such a sad case. It was such a tragedy for so many people," Helzer noted. Ford's death leaves 83 men on Nevada's death row.

(Reno Gazette-Journal and Associated Press, January 30, 2005). See Women, Life Without Parole, and Mental Illness.

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