This case is a bit out of the ordinary. We talk about family annihilators all the time; this is when a parent, usually the father, murders his children and spouse. Sometimes the killer will then try to commit suicide, die with his family. What’s surprising about this case we’re talking about today is that the family annihilator is the wife and mother. It’s not at all uncommon for a mother to kill their kids, or for a wife to murder her husband; it’s much rarer for a woman to murder her entire family by her own hand and not commit suicide afterwords. Not impossible, it’s not that it hasn’t happened before, but it is uncommon.
This is the case of a beautiful young Texas mom named Frances Newton. As usual I’m gonna try to leave my opinions out of it, just give you the facts. Tell me what you think!
Houston, Texas, 1987 –
21 year old Frances had been with her husband, 23 year old Adrian, since they were kids; it was a first love relationship. Together the couple had 2 children; 7 year old Alton was conceived when Frances was merely 14, and they had a baby girl named Farrah who was just 21 months old. It was a beautiful family, and by all accounts Frances was an excellent mother. She was loving, doting, patient, and kind; her son Alton was a shining star at his elementary school, and he had never missed even a single day of school in his life. If you’re a parent, you know how impressive that is. Frances worked, while Adrian played the part of the stay home dad.
The couple did have their problems, as is the case in most young marriages. Adrian had often cheated; his older brother, Sterling, had fallen on hard times and moved in with the family. Brother had been caught up in a certain lifestyle, and introduced Adrian to not only taking drugs but dealing them.
Frances was sick of being cheated on, tired of her husband not doing right by her, so in recent months she’d been having her own affair with a young man she had known from middle school. It had been a lot for a young couple to handle, but it seemed that Frances and Adrian truly loved each other. People make mistakes, and it seemed that they had decided to work it out.
On April 7th of 1987, Frances had spent the day with her children playing in the sun, then she had spent some quality time with her husband. The couple made love, and that evening Frances left the apartment to run some errands. On the way home, she stopped at her cousin’s house for a short visit. Frances asked her cousin, Sondra Nelms, to accompany her back to the apartment; Sondra hopped in the car and they drove to Frances’s place.
When the two cousins walked into Frances dark home they immediately noticed Adrian laying on the couch. At first it appeared that he had been sleeping, but there was blood coming from his head. Frances ran to the bedroom where her children were sleeping; the kids were deceased as well. There entire family had been shot, just one time each, execution style, with a .25-caliber pistol. It was a quick job, the killer had murdered Adrian as he’d slept on the couch, then walked directly to the children’s room to put a bullet in the kids chests. It appeared that the motive had simply been to kill; there had been no forced entry, and nothing was missing from the home.
So Frances was an absolute mess when she discovered all this; she could not even dial 911, cousin Sondra had to make the call. Frances acted exactly how you’d expect a shocked wife and mother to act, at one point she even fainted! But according to investigators there was plenty of evidence that proves this was all just an Oscar-worthy performance.
Two weeks after the murders, police received a phone call from a life insurance company; they’d been concerned that a woman named Frances was trying to collect on her family’s life insurance policies. Said policies had been taken out on her husband and daughter in March of 1987, just a month prior to their deaths; the policy on her son was a bit older. Frances stood to gain $100,000 if her family kicked the bucket. Here’s the thing- Adrian’s signature on the life insurance policy had been forged; it appears that he had no idea it even existed.
During a later interview with Frances’s cousin, Sondra, it was said that when Frances came to her house for that brief visit of only 30-40 minutes that fateful day, she had been acting strangely. She walked around, hugging and kissing her relatives while telling them she loved them, and that you never know which day will be your last. This behavior was described as totally out of the ordinary for Frances. Sondra also told police that Frances begged her to come back to her apartment with her; as they were pulling out of the driveway, Frances stopped the car and grabbed a blue cloth bag from the back seat – this bag had belonged to her son. She walked next door to an abandoned property which was owned by Frances’s parents and left the bag there. When police went to the property to retrieve that blue bag, they discovered it contained the murder weapon; the .25 caliber Raven Arms pistol been stolen from a Jeffrey Freelow, and this was the man who had been having an affair with Frances. Yes Jeffrey was cleared as a suspect, and he went out of his way to help with the investigation.
Frances was arrested and charged with first degree premeditated murder; in 1988 she was sentenced to death. At first glance this case does appear to be pretty open and shut, but maybe it’s not. Plenty of people believed that Frances was innocent, and should have been freed.
First, maybe there was someone else who had a reason to kill her family. Frances had told police at the start of the investigation that her brother in law, Sterling, had introduced her husband to some bad apples; Adrian had recently been caught up in selling drugs, and had owed some of those bad people money. In particular there was a man named Charley who Sterling had been really afraid of. Now this could be just an excuse, but police had received an anonymous tip stating that on the night of the murders, between 7:00-7:30 pm, there had been an African American man of approximately 30 years of age sitting in a truck outside the family’s apartment. It was thought that maybe this man had been casing the place – was this Charley? It’s hard to tell, a drug dealer by that name was never traced down; investigators aren’t positive the man even exists.
There was evidence which the prosecution used to condemn Frances which may not have been evidence at all – nitrite residue (gunpowder) on the hem of the mother’s skirt. Police had done a terrible job at storing the evidence; all of the clothing, the victims and those belonging to Frances, had been stored together in one bag. It had all been contaminated, and eroded over time. Frances claimed that she had been playing outside with her children for much of that day, and that it wasn’t gunpowder on her skirt at all – it had been fertilizer. This may sound ridiculous, but given the technological capabilities at that time, it is actually possible. On top of all this, there may have been evidence which proved more than one firearm were used in the murders. It’s said that the ballistics on the gun didn’t match the evidence, the gun which Frances admitted to hiding was not the murder weapon, and the shell casings did not match. As to Frances hid the firearm, she claimed that after having that talk with her husband about fixing the marriage, Adrian promised to straighten up and drop all connections he had with drugs. So before she left the apartment, Frances checked the spot in which she knew her husband always hid his stash, and this is where she claimed to have discovered the gun. She didn’t want any trouble, nor did she want a firearm in her home with her babies.
If what Frances said was true (which I’m not saying it is, again I’m just informing you of both sides here) she may have actually been innocent. Either way, every bit of this should’ve been thoroughly investigated, and it is a terrible injustice that it was not. Frances’ lawyer, Ron Mock, had been unfit to try this case; the man was a whiskey drinker who barely did his job at all. Witnesses for the defense were never interviewed let alone called to the stand; Frances’s side of the story was not told, important testing was not done. When question as to why he did not investigate this capital murder case which he had been responsible for, Mock stated that investigation had not been his job. Frances only met Mock briefly in the year and a half before going to trial – it’s safe to say he simply did not care about any of his clients. Yes, plural – it wasn’t just Frances. Mock defended 16+ inmates all the way to death row; in fact throughout his whole career this man never had a client acquitted – not even one! Mock has also been suspended multiple times by the Texas bar association.
Frances gained plenty of supporters over the years, people fought tooth and nail to save the beautiful young woman’s life – a woman who, by the way, was to be the very first black woman to be executed in Texas since the civil war. Yes, people were definitely up in arms about this. Dozens upon dozens of protesters did their best to stop the execution, and just 2 hours before she was to be put to death governor Rick Perry granted a 120 day reprieve in order to retest the gunpowder on her skirt. But in the end it didn’t matter; after 19 years on death row, on September 14th of 2005, a 40 year old Frances Newton was put to death by lethal injection. She maintained her innocence till the day she died, and somehow she managed to keep the fact that she was on death row for murdering her children away from her fellow inmates. Smart.
While the evidence against her was definitely condemning, it was also circumstancial. Did Frances die for murders which she did not commit? A lot of people think so. Again, I’m not giving my opinion on whether I believe she may have been innocent or not, but I will say this. Whatever a person did or did not do, they deserve a fair trial with decent representation, which is too often not the case for the poor in this country. That alone is not only tragic, it’s downright shameful.
*There are in depth articles which preach Frances’s guilt, and others which swear by her innocence; both sides make very convincing arguments. If you do decide to do some digging, be careful with the documentaries on this case – they stink! The most simplistic of information such as names are wrong, timelines are way off, I’m so glad I didn’t go with the info I received from them. And most tell strictly one side of the story, which is to be expected from a documentary but still unfair as it makes the watcher’s mind up without them even knowing it. If you want to dig into a case, always find both sides and make your own decision from there. If you have some extra time this is a great little rabbit hole to fall into. And please, tell me what you think!