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15 September 2005

a Texas execution, a Texas lawyer

On Wednesday, Texas executed Frances Newton, 40, a black woman who was convicted of murdering her husband and their two young children 18 years ago, allegedly to collect on their life insurance. She was executed by lethal injection at the state prison in Huntsville. She maintained she was innocent of the murders.

There were no witnesses to the killings, and the prosecution's case depended largely on scientific evidence processed by Houston's notoriously unreliable and scandal-ridden police crime laboratory. There are many other controversies surrounding the conviction.

A few posts ago I wrote about the notoriously shameful spectral evidence -- demons and devils that only some "possessed" witnesses could see -- which condemned nineteen "witches"to be hanged in Massachusetts in 1692. Today, when people are executed in the United States, we flatter ourselves that we have a far more fair, modern, scientific and rational system of justice to make sure only the guilty will die.

We flatter ourselves.

I'd like to reprint this Houston Chronicle column about just one of the controversies -- a controversy that shadows not just Frances Newton's execution, but many of Texas' death row inmates. But first a more recent update from a blog called Off the Kuff:

February 12, 2005
Ron Mock suspended
Houston's worst defense attorney, Ron Mock, has been suspended for nearly three years by the State Bar.

The 58-year-old former bar owner was placed on probation most recently in February 2004 after state officials found that he had accepted $4,600 to handle a woman's sexual harassment claim but had not told her that he had little experience with such cases. The woman's lawsuit was dismissed after Mock failed to respond to a preliminary motion, records show.

Originally, Mock was to have served one month of active suspension in March 2004, followed by 35 months on probation. The State Bar's board of disciplinary appeals ordered the longer suspension starting in December, however, because he violated his probation terms, which included notifying clients and the courts in which he worked about the disciplinary action, state records show.


Mock handled 19 capital murder cases between 1986 and 2001, and 16 of his clients ended up on death row. More than 10 have been executed, records show.

He stopped accepting court-appointed capital murder cases in 2001, after a new state law set stricter requirements for indigent capital defense.

"I was tired of the heat, so I got out of the kitchen," Mock said in an interview last year.

Several death row inmates he represented claimed on appeal that Mock did not represent them adequately.

Most recently, Frances Newton of Harris County said Mock met with her several times but never thoroughly discussed with her the case involving the 1987 murders of her husband and two children.


The Houston Chronicle (Texas USA)
Thursday 2 December 2004

Mock gone, not mockery

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Ron Mock was once a national emblem of primitive Texas justice.

A front-page article in the New York Times four years ago was devoted to his hapless performance as the appointed attorney for indigent defendants in capital crimes.

A metaphorical section of Death Row was known, the article said, as "the Mock Wing." It symbolized his achievement of having lost, by Mock's own calculations, more death-penalty cases that any other attorney in Texas.

Now he is in the news again.

He was the court-appointed trial attorney for Frances Newton, who received a last-minute reprieve from execution Tuesday from Gov. Rick Perry so that certain scientific evidence handled by the Houston Police Crime Lab could be retested.

Newton, convicted of murdering her husband and two small children for insurance money, may be guilty. Or she may not.

Missing eyewitnesses

The disgraced crime lab is one problem. Having the legendary Ron Mock appointed as her attorney is another. Consider the following, from Newton's case and beyond:

* The attorney appointed to assist Mock in defending Newton, Catherine Coulter, gave sworn testimony that Mock told her he had thoroughly checked out the evidence in the case, but later confessed he had not. Days before the trial, Mock admitted at a hearing that he had not interviewed any witnesses or filed any motions in the case.

* Mock admitted to a reporter he flunked criminal law in law school.

* In the highly publicized Gary Graham case, his client was sentenced to death by the testimony of a single eyewitness. Yet two witnesses who were named in police reports were not called by Mock. Both said Graham was not the killer. An investigator hired by Mock for the case said he and Mock assumed Graham, who had a violent criminal history, was guilty. Mock denied this.

* For years judges gave Mock an inordinate number of capital and other cases. In the early 1990s, he racked up fees of more than $70,000 a year for as many as 40 trials annually. He never won an acquittal in a capital case. At least 16 Mock clients have gone to Death Row. Four, including Newton, are still there.

* While conducting jury selection in the trial of John Westley, Mock was arrested. An appeals court found him in contempt for repeatedly missing deadlines for filings on behalf of another client. In another case, a judge removed Mock as attorney for a death-row inmate after learning he was three months late in filing an appeals brief. In at least four other cases, defendants asked to dismiss Mock, but were not allowed to do so.

* Westley was sentenced to death for firing the bullet that killed a store owner during a robbery with two friends. But prosecutors had told another jury that one of the friends had fired the fatal bullet. The friend got 35 years. Mock had not arranged for the friend's trial to be monitored, a routine procedure.

* Mock has been disciplined by the state bar six times. He was suspended twice, once for mishandling client funds, and another time for accepting a court appointment while under suspension. He was reprimanded for telling a judge in open court he would testify against a former client because he had filed a grievance against him. (He later told a reporter he was joking.)

* In 1995, the Legislature passed a law setting minimum standards for lawyers appointed in capital cases. Sen. Rodney Ellis, who authored the bill, said national publicity including that involving Mock helped pass the law.

"They should call him 'death row Mock,'" Ellis said.

Mock signed up for a required course, but either did not take or did not pass the test.

I could go on, but there is a point to make here.

The Legislature has passed minimum standards he has not met.

Several lower state and federal courts have found Mock's representation to be inadequate.

Yet either the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals or the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of appeals have repeatedly overturned those findings.

Mock is no longer part of the death-penalty system, but their mocking sense of what constitutes justice is.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at


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