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Texas governor grants woman rare stay

Convicted killer gets 120-day reprieve for review of evidence

Frances Newton
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A Texas woman on death row is granted a reprieve.
Rick Perry

(CNN) -- Two hours before she was to have been executed by lethal injection, convicted killer Frances Elaine Newton on Wednesday received a 120-day reprieve from Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry said his decision is based solely on issues relating to evidence in the case of Newton, a 39-year-old woman convicted of killing her husband and two children 17 years ago in the family's Houston-area apartment.

"After a lengthy review of the trial transcript, appellate court rulings, and clemency proceedings, I see no evidence of innocence," Perry said in a written statement. "However, I am granting the additional time to allow the courts the opportunity to order a retesting of gunpowder residue on the skirt the defendant wore at the time of the murders and of the gun used in the murders.

"Although this evidence was evaluated by the jury and appellate courts, new technology is available for testing gunpowder residue."

Newton has denied involvement in the killings.

"Justice delayed in this case is not justice denied," Perry said. "The courts are the ultimate arbiters of evidence, and this case is now back in the hands of the courts."

In a rare move, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had recommended the move Tuesday by a 5-1 vote.

"Well, that's great," said Parole Board Commissioner Paddy Burwell, in a telephone interview from his home in Westhoff.

As a commissioner, Burwell did not vote on the matter. But he served on the board from 1999 until last January, and said he had voted several times for similar reprieves, but without success.

"A lot of those cases really smelled bad to me," he said.

Burwell expressed surprise at the governor's move. In another case in which the board voted 5-1 for clemency, the governor failed to act on the recommendation, he said.

Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said the governor has issued just two prior reprieves -- each for 30 days -- since he took the office vacated by George W. Bush on December 21, 2000.

Walt said the first occurred September 11, 2001, when the courts were closed as a result of the terrorist attacks; the second occurred in 2002, when authorities believed a convict had information regarding unsolved murder cases.

In both cases, the executions went forward after the 30-day reprieve, she said.

"These aren't easy decisions," Walt said. "He spends a lot of time on them."

The case now returns to the Texas courts, which must decide how to pursue retesting of evidence, she said.

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