Friday, March 25, 2005

FRANCES NEWTON is a 39-year-old black woman in Texas. She used to live in an apartment complex in Houston with her husband, Adrian, and their two young children, Alton and Farah. But since October, 1988, she has been living on Texas's death row, convicted of murdering her family.

In April, 1987, Newton's husband and children were found dead in their apartment. All 3 of them had been shot at close range. The prosecution relied entirely on circumstantial evidence, much of it inconsistent or illogical, to get the guilty verdict against Newton. Newton's lawyer, Ron Mock, has a long record of losing death penalty cases; and in Newton's trial his performance was incompetent. The state's case was based in large part on ballistic evidence gathered by the Houston Police Department's crime lab. In March, 2003, an independent audit of the lab found that its DNA analysis and ballistics testing sections were marked by "serious defects"; in October, 2004, a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge called for a moratorium on all executions in cases where the convictions were based on testing done at the HPD crime lab.

Frances Newton was scheduled to be executed on December 1, 2004. Two hours before the lethal injection was to take place, Gov. Rick Perry granted a 120-day reprieve that had been requested by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Without acknowledging or mentioning the serious problems found at the HPD Crime Lab, Gov. Perry said he was granting the temporary stay of execution only because "new technologies" now existed for conducting ballistic tests. Despite all the other troubling aspects of Newton's original trial, Perry said he "saw no evidence of innocence." But the rarity of the Texas Board's 5-1 vote to recommend this stay of execution is a strong indication of how compromised the evidence was as a result of having come out of the HPD Crime Lab.

The fact that Frances Newton was two hours away from death as a result of tainted evidence, and the possibility that she may still be executed if, after the ballistics tests are redone, Gov. Perry does not credit the changed results, gives one pause when reading the comments of Republicans like Pres. Bush in the case of Terri Schiavo. Pres. Bush pushed Congress to pass a law giving the executive and legislative branches of the federal government control over the judicial branch in a U.S. state; his brother, Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush, tried (in vain, but he did try) to get the courts to authorize transferring custody of Terri Schiavo from her husband to the state of Florida; he even tried to kidnap Ms. Schiavo from the hospice she is in, until Judge Greer issued an injunction stopping him from doing so.

The reason, according to a spokesperson for Pres. Bush, for ignoring the sovereignty of states under the federal system and for stepping over the constitutional provision for separation of powers between the 3 branches of government, is that, "When there is a complex case such as this, where serious questions and doubts have been raised, the president believes we ought to err on the side of life."

So if Pres. Bush truly and sincerely believes that, in the presence of "serious questions and doubts," the federal government can overstep any bounds, whether constitutionally prescribed or not, in order to "err on the side of life," then he should certainly establish federal control over Texas if that state does decide to execute Frances Newton. If anyone would agree, it would be Pres. Bush: It would be wrong to execute Newton when so many serious doubts and questions have been raised about the fairness of her trial and the reliability of the evidence against her. It's better to err on the side of life than to murder an innocent woman.

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