How Do You Sleep at Night?

Frances Newton and the Prospects for a New Abolitionism

As I write this, Frances Newton is waiting to be executed in a prison south of Huntsville, Texas, having seen her most recent request for clemency denied by the Supreme Court. If the sentence is carried out, she will be the third woman executed in the state since the Civil War, and the first black woman. By the time anyone has a chance to read this, any call I might make for letters to the relevant power-holders may very well be too late. If she is still alive, by all means, write to them. Overload their inboxes. Call them potential murderers. But if she is dead, perhaps her death might serve as an occasion for those of us who find the death penalty abhorrent and disgraceful to take stock of how miserably we are losing this battle, and to contemplate the efficacy of our strategy.

As the New York Times reports, the bodies of Newton's husband and children were discovered on April 7, 1987. Her husband had been shot in the head, the two children in the chest, all with a .25-caliber pistol. The police believe they have conclusive evidence that the murder weapon can be traced back to Newton. On top of this, there is plenty of damning circumstantial evidence. Three weeks before the slayings, Newton took out $50,000 life insurance policies on herself, her husband and her daughter. As the Times reports, she named herself as beneficiary and said she signed her husband's name to prevent him from discovering she had set aside money to pay for the premiums.

So much for the details. What is Newton's position? "I know I did not murder my kids and my family," she told The Associated Press in a death row interview. "It's frustrating ... nobody's had to answer for that." Is she telling the truth? I have no idea. What is certain, though, is that any further discussion of the veracity of her claim to innocence will be of no use to her after her death.

Nature has seen to it that no legal case shall be held open indefinitely. Many a Nazi has managed to die of old age before justice caught up with him. John Demjanjuk was too old and feeble to really be susceptible to any effective punishment when it was discovered he had lied on his citizenship application about his stint as a camp guard. Short of the limits imposed by cruel time, the punisher of all, it seems reasonable that justice should proceed as does science: every verdict shall be subject to revision on the basis of disconfirming evidence. Capital punishment is not only morally objectionable, but, in a justice system that pretends to link punishment to proof of guilt, is epistemologically sketchy as well.

Exactly a month ago, the only woman ever to be executed in Georgia was granted an official pardon, sixty years after her death. One would think that this could have served as a lesson to the executioners down the road in Huntsville. There is something about post-mortem pardons that is very nearly as shameful as the punishment the pardonners acknowledge to have been wrongly meted out, at least for those of us who believe that the only real goods are those that come to one between the horizons of birth and death. And such belated reckoning can't but raise the question: if the state can wrongly kill someone, and then get away with a meek 'sorry', why can't the murderer do so as well?

But what if she is guilty? Many on death row of course are. We abolitionists, however, must never lose sight of the abhorrence of the death penalty as such, not of a death penalty that occasionally misfires and wrongfully executes the innocent, as may or may not be the case of Frances Newton. For the problem is not just that the system, when it executes innocents, tends to cull these innocents from a certain social class, but also that in the application of the penalty to true killers, those from this same class are given priority treatment.

Abolitionism is in a delicate spot, since pragmatically it seems best to work on a case-by-case basis, and the most promising cases are the ones where guilt is in question. And all the better if the death row inmate is mentally handicapped. Let us proceed pragmatically, but never lose sight of our principled opposition to execution tout court. Let us also not neglect the cases of confessed murderers. For here, too, the state is moving outside of its domain of competence in deciding when and how, and at whose hands, the murderer will die. The state uses tax revenue to pay the salaries of people who are charged with the task of soberly and methodically strapping down human beings, physically in the prime of life, injecting poison into them, and depriving them of this life. This is wrong in a way that is fundamentally different from the wrongness of the murders that precipitate executions. It is a moral stain on all of us.

As an addendum to this article, I note that, as far as Frances Newton is concerned, it is indeed too little too late. She was executed last night. I would love to hear from anyone in Texas who can honestly say they feel any better, or will sleep any easier, now that this woman has been discarded.

Justin Smith is a professor of philosophy and writer living in Montreal. He can be reached at: