Friday, September 16, 2005

Now We'll Never Know

Possibly the next governor of Texas: Kinky Friedman

Texas executed Frances Newton last night by lethal injection. Newton was the third woman and first black woman Texas has executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982, and she might've been innocent.

There was evidence enough in fact to compel the president of the American Bar Association to write a letter to Rick Perry and to the Executive Clemency Unit of the Texas Board of Prisons and Paroles:

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.

The Austin Chronicle claims that Newton was the first black woman to be executed since the Civil War, and points out that the manner in which Newton went from court room to death row is both frighteningly slipshod and incredibly common.

Unique in that historical sense, in other ways the Frances Newton case is painfully unexceptional. For there is no incontrovertible evidence against Newton, and the paltry evidence that does exist has been completely compromised. Moreover, her story is one more in a long line of Texas death row cases in which the prosecutions were sloppy or dishonest, the defenses incompetent or negligent, and the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial was honored only in name.


Lingering questions about the physical evidence against Newton prompted the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend, and Gov. Rick Perry to grant, a 120-day reprieve for Newton on Dec. 1, 2004 – the day she was last scheduled for execution. Although Perry said he saw no "evidence of innocence" – legally, an oxymoron – he granted the four-month stay to allow for retesting of evidence contested by Newton's defense, including nitrite residue on the hem of her skirt and gun ballistics evidence.

But testing on the skirt proved impossible, because the 1987 tests had destroyed the nitrite particles, and Harris Co. court officials had stored the skirt by sealing it inside a bag together with items of the victims' bloody clothing – thereby rendering it worthless as evidence. The second round of ballistics testing, on the other hand, supposedly confirmed a match between the gun prosecutors say Newton used and the bullets that killed her family. However, that match may be fundamentally undermined – because there is no certain connection between the gun and Newton.

At the very least, this is a case that deserved more attention from the State of Texas. We are not doing enough to insure equal justice in this state, and that's a frightening thing indeed when it comes to capital punishment. As Kinky himself often says "I'm not against the death penalty, but I am against executing the wrong person." The governor's job is to do everything in the office's power to make sure that only the guilty are put to death in Texas and that all evidence gets a fair hearing.

True justice demands nothing less.

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