Frances Newton

Harris County, Texas
Date of Crime:  April 7, 1987
Executed September 14, 2005

Frances Elaine Newton was sentenced to death for the of murders of her husband and two children. The husband, Adrian Newton, was found shot to death in the family's apartment along with the couple's two children, Alton, 7, and Farrah, 1. The apartment was located at 6126 West Mount Houston Road, Houston, Texas. Less than a month before the murders, Frances purchased a $50,000 life insurance policy on Adrian and forged his name to complete the deal. She also purchased a separate $50,000 policy on Farrah. At the time of the murders both Frances and Adrian were seeing other people.

The prosecution alleged that after committing the murders Frances drove to a burned out, abandoned house owned by her parents and hid a blue cloth bag containing the murder weapon, a Raven Arms .25 automatic pistol. Frances allegedly had stolen this pistol from her boyfriend’s dresser. The prosecution also claimed that gunshot residue was found on the hem of her skirt.

In regard to the insurance motive, State Farm agent Claudia Chapman approached her in Sept. 1986 to sell her automobile insurance. Frances didn’t ask to add life insurance. Chapman brought the subject up and encouraged Frances to add that coverage. Chapman pointed out the life insurance had the added benefit of acting as a savings account. Still Frances did not purchase the insurance.

Two months before the murders, three of Frances' cousins died in a house fire, in the same house in which the alleged murder weapon was found. The family did not have the money to pay for the funerals. After the fire, Frances’ father advised her and her siblings to prepare for the future, in part by buying life insurance. It was only then that Frances bought the life insurance. She did not make herself the sole beneficiary, but listed her mother as a secondary beneficiary. Besides buying a policy on her husband and her daughter, she also bought a $50,000 policy on herself. A policy had already existed on her son Alton.

Witnesses indicated the murders occurred after 7 p.m. Adrian's brother Sterling said he came over to the apartment between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. and stayed for an hour and a half. At about 6:45 p.m., Adrian's girlfriend, Ramona Bell, called and spoke to Adrian for about 15 minutes. Bell said Adrian told her he was tired and planned to go to bed after Frances left. Between 7 and 7:15 p.m., Adrian's friend, Alphonse Harrison, said he called to speak with Adrian. Frances answered and put Harrison on hold. Harrison hung up after 45 minutes of being on hold. Frances maintained that she left the apartment at 6 p.m. so that Adrian and Sterling could talk and also to pay her automobile insurance. She acknowledged answering Harrison's call, but said he was mistaken about the time. She denied ever speaking to Bell. If any telephone records were generated by the calls, they were never entered into evidence.

Frances' cousin, Sondra Nelms, testified that Frances arrived at her home between 7 and 7:30 p.m. Nelms lived at 6524 Sealy Street, Houston, Texas. The normal driving time to her residence from Frances' home is 13 minutes. Frances asked Sondra to come back to her apartment. While the two were leaving in Frances' car, Sondra said she watched Frances remove a blue bag from her car and put it inside the abandoned house next door.

Police later found this bag contained the purported murder weapon. Between 7:45 and 8 p.m., Frances and Sondra arrived at Frances' apartment and upon entry the phone rang with a call for Adrian. Frances answered and said, “I think he's asleep, I'll see if I can wake him.” She then discovered Adrian had been killed. She also checked on the children and discovered they too had been killed. The person on the telephone was left on hold for some time until Nelms picked up the receiver to call 911. She later learned the caller was Harrison who claimed to have been put on hold before rather than after the murders. Frances, of course, had given him the impression that Adrian was alive but sleeping when she answered his call.

The evidence indicates that if Frances was home after 7 p.m., she must have left no later than 7:20 p.m. There was an ear-witness, Clive Adams, who lived in a neighboring apartment. Adams told a police officer that he heard a gunshot around 7:30 p.m. Frances' trial jury never heard from Adams.

Each victim was shot at close range with a single bullet. Adrian was shot while sleeping on the living room sofa. The children were probably shot after Adrian. Due to the close range of the shots, blood backsplatter would have gotten on Frances' clothes, if she was the shooter. There was a trail a blood on the floor leading to the children's bedrooms that presumably had dripped from the shooter. Yet no blood was found on Frances' clothes. Even if witnesses were mistaken about Frances' timeline and she had a few minutes to commit the shooting, she would have needed additional time to put on new clothes and dispose of the clothes she was wearing. Police found no blood in Frances' car or on the gun that she hid.

The prosecution found nitrates on the hem of Frances' long skirt which were alleged to be gunshot residue. In order to get such residue just on the hem of her skirt, she would have had to fire the gun when it was down by her ankle. Even if one accepts this unusual shooting position, the evidence does not explain why residue was not also found on Frances' hands and on her long sleeve sweater.

Besides gunshots, nitrates can also come from fertilizer, cosmetics, tobacco smoke, and urine. During the day of the murders, 1-year-old Farrah Newton stayed with her uncle while Frances worked. The uncle maintained a large garden and used a corresponding amount of fertilizer. It is quite possible that Farrah came in contact with the fertilizer and transferred a trace amount of it to her mother's skirt. The state failed to conduct tests to prove the nitrates were from gunshots rather than from fertilizer.

According to Frances, Adrian had a drug habit and owed his dealer $1500. Adrian's brother, Terrence Lewis, corroborated the debt and even told them where the dealer lived. The debt may have been a motive for the murders. Frances said she forged Adrian's signature on his life insurance policy to prevent Adrian from learning she had set money aside for the payments.

While Adrian was watching television, Frances said she opened the cabinet where Adrian kept his drug stash. There she found a Raven Arms .25 automatic pistol. She recalled a conversation earlier in the day between Adrian and Sterling about some trouble they had been in. She didn’t want the gun in the house, removed it, put in a duffel bag and took it with her to her cousin’s house.

About a day after the murders, an anonymous female called the Harris County Sheriff’s Department and claimed she had noticed a red pickup truck at the scene of the murders. She claimed the driver was a black male approximately 30-years-old. She provided the license number. The police traced that number, but did not follow up on the lead.

According to the prosecution, the gun that Frances put in the blue bag was determined to have fired the fatal bullets. Allegedly the gun was sent to ballistics the day after the murders and results came back while Frances was still at the police station. Yet despite the allegedly conclusive proof of guilt, police did not arrest her then and there and would not for another two weeks. They only arrested her two weeks later because she and her mother applied to collect the insurance money. Frances' father, Bee Henry Nelms, signed an affidavit claiming that upon his daughter's arrest, deputy Sgt. J.J. Freeze told him that Frances would be released as ballistics tests failed to implicate her.

When the alleged murder weapon was presented at trial, officers testified that it “appeared similar” to the one recovered and tested. They did not identify it by its serial number or by any distinguishing characteristics. Police had actually recovered two guns. Affidavits from two police investigators also allude to the recovery of a second gun.

Prior to Frances' execution, Assistant DA Roe Wilson confirmed to a Dutch reporter that “police recovered a gun from the apartment that belonged to the husband,” but added that it “had not been fired, it had not been involved in the offense. … It was simply a gun [he] had there, so there is no second-gun theory.” Wilson later claimed to have “misspoken.” The case was originally investigated as a murder of the children by Adrian who then committed suicide by shooting himself. It is not clear why police would have entertained such a theory unless they found a second gun in the apartment. Frances' defense was not given any crime scene photos taken before the bodies were removed. Possibly a gun was in the photos.

Prosecutors never revealed the existence of a second gun to the defense. There was also evidence of a third gun. Officer Frank Pratt told Frances Zeon, an investigating law student from the University of Houston, that the gun found in the abandoned house was traced to a purchase by Frances' boyfriend and that the boyfriend had purchased a second identical gun.

On the day Frances' trial began, her attorney, Ron Mock, admitted that he could not provide the name of a single witness with whom he had spoken. Mock had more clients sent to death row than any other lawyer. He is no longer assigned death penalty cases because of his abysmal record as an attorney.

According to Sondra Nelms, upon finding Adrian dead, Frances “immediately screamed and bolted to the children's bedroom. She began to frantically scream uncontrollably. I could not calm her down enough to elicit the apartment's address. … I know in my heart that after watching the reaction of Frances upon discovering her husband and children, there is absolutely no way she had any involvement in their deaths.” Frances Newton was executed by lethal injection on Sept. 14, 2005.  [3/11]


References:  Skeptical Juror, Motion for Stay of Execution, Clark County Prosecutor, Justice: Denied #1, JD #2, State Appeal, Federal Appeal

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Houston Cases, Husband Murder Cases, Triple Homicide Cases, Defendants Executed by Texas