Texas is preparing to execute the first black woman in the state since the American civil war – drawing protests from her supporters and opponents of the US death penalty.
Frances Newton, 40, was convicted of murdering her husband and two children in 1987 for a $100,000 ( £55,000) insurance payout. Her campaigners say she is innocent, but supporters of capital punishment point out that she has lost several appeals.
If she is given a lethal injection next month as planned, she will be the first African-American woman to be executed in Texas since the civil war ended in 1865, and only the second in the country since capital punishment resumed in 1977.
“What this will do is make it easier to execute more innocent women,” said Gloria Rubac, a Houston-based activist for the abolition of the death penalty. “If they murder her, they will be able to murder anybody who is innocent.”
Newton’s case has put the spotlight back on the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, and the state’s record on capital punishment. Of the 979 executions in the US over the past 28 years, 347 have been in Texas. Of these, 152 took place during George Bush’s 1995-2000 state governorship.
“We’re cautiously optimistic of a reprieve because of the strength of the new evidence, but we live in Texas and we know what goes on here,” said Ms Rubac.
Newton is one of five black people among nine women on death row at the Mountain View women’s jail in Gatesville. She was convicted of shooting her estranged husband, Adrian, 23, son, Alton, seven, and 21-month-old daughter, Farrah, a month after taking out insurance policies on their lives.
Her lawyer, David Dow, of the University of Houston’s Law Centre Innocence Network, said the state had covered up the existence of a second gun found at the family’s apartment, and that no jury would have convicted Newton if she had had a competent lawyer at her trial. Newton’s original court-appointed attorney, Ronald Mock, admitted he had not read key papers or interviewed witnesses. The state bar of Texas recently suspended him for 35 months for unrelated disciplinary reasons.
“It’s rare, if not unheard of, for a woman to be executed for killing her children,” said Professor Dow. “This case is unusual for several reasons, but the evidence that points away from her is more compelling than that which points to her.”
Human Rights Watch
Newton’s fate rests with the Texas appeal court, which is reviewing a writ of habeas corpus submitted by Prof Dow. Any response might not come until the planned execution date of September 14.
Hundreds of supporters, meanwhile, are planning a march to the Texas governor’s mansion in Austin tomorrow. Ms Rubac said: “We’re getting up to 100 emails a day. The response shows that people don’t want to see an innocent person killed even if they believe in the death penalty.”
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