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Claude Jones was executed by Texas on December 7, 2000. He was the 152nd person executed while George W. Bush was governor of Texas. Now, nearly 10 years after his state execution, the single strand of hair used to convict and sentence Jones to death has been found to have belonged to the victim.
Texas may have killed an innocent man.
The Texas Observer reports DNA Tests Undermine Evidence in Texas Execution.
Claude Jones always claimed that he wasn’t the man who walked into an East Texas liquor store in 1989 and shot the owner. He professed his innocence right up until the moment he was strapped to a gurney in the Texas execution chamber and put to death on Dec. 7, 2000. His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene-a strand of hair-that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones.
But DNA tests completed this week at the request of the Observer and the New York-based Innocence Project show the hair didn’t belong to Jones after all. The day before his death in December 2000, Jones asked for a stay of execution so the strand of hair could be submitted for DNA testing. He was denied by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
A decade later, the results of DNA testing not only undermine the evidence that convicted Jones, but raise the possibility that Texas executed an innocent man. The DNA tests-conducted by Mitotyping Technologies, a private lab in State College, Pa., and first reported by the Observer on Thursday-show the hair belonged to the victim of the shooting, Allen Hilzendager, the 44-year-old owner of the liquor store.
Because the DNA testing doesn’t implicate another shooter, the results don’t prove Jones’ innocence. But the hair was the only piece of evidence that placed Jones at the crime scene. So while the results don’t exonerate him, they raise serious doubts about his guilt. As with the now-infamous Cameron Todd Willingham arson case, the key forensic evidence in a Texas death penalty case has now been debunked.
Claude Jones was often violent and had a criminal past, as the Observer article notes, “but Jones wasn’t executed for his previous crimes”. Jones was convicted in 1990 for the murder of Hilzendager based on testimony (later recanted and convicted of perjury) from an accomplice and the single strand of hair. It was not possible to test the hair for mitochondrial DNA at the time of the trial, but a decade later, such a test could be done. However, the Texas courts turned down his two requests by Jones’ lawyers for a stay to have the hair tested. His only chance of a stay was from then-Gov. Bush.
Bush was not told about Jones’ request for DNA testing in the memorandum briefing him on the stay and did not grant Jones a stay.
“A confidential memorandum from assistant general counsel Claudia Nadig to Bush on the matter never mentioned DNA testing. Nadig recommended the stay be denied,” the Houston Chronicle reported in 2007 in an article about the single strand of hair, which was at the center of a lawsuit to get it tested. (In June 2010, after years in court being opposed by the San Jacinto County, Judge Paul Murphy ruled the strand of hair could be DNA tested.)
“I have no doubt that if President Bush had known about the request to do a DNA test of the hair he would have would have issued a 30-day stay in this case and Jones would not have been executed,” Barry Scheck, the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, said in a press release.
Scheck noted that Bush had issued a stay for DNA testing just months earlier in another capital case and said at the time, “Any time DNA evidence can be used in its context and can be relevant as to the guilt or innocence of a person on death row, we need to use it.”
“It is unbelievable that the lawyers in the General Counsel’s office failed to inform the governor that Jones was seeking DNA testing on evidence that was so pivotal to the case,” said former Texas Governor and Attorney General Mark White.
Those directly involved in Jones’ conviction and execution declined or were unavailable to comment, the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday. San Jacinto County officials could not be reached and Bush, who is now on his book tour, declined to comment. Furthermore, memorandum author “Nadig, now a government lawyer in Washington could not be reached for comment Thursday.”
The Innocence Project press release, however, had a statement from the executed man’s son:
“My father never claimed to be a saint, but he always maintained that he didn’t commit this murder,” said Duane Jones, the son of Claude Jones who only got to know Jones as his father while on death row.
“Knowing that these DNA results support his innocence means so much to me, my son in the military and the rest of my family. I hope these results will serve as a wakeup call to everyone that serious problems exist in the criminal justice system that must be fixed if our society is to continue using the death penalty. We must be careful that all aspects of our law enforcement and court systems are always driven by justice, truth and logic – not vengeance, emotion or politics.”
“I was 98 percent sure of what he was telling me… but now I believe him 100 percent. He was railroaded. He did not shoot that man. I think not only am I owed an apology, but so is everybody in the whole state of Texas,” Duane Jones told the Chronicle.
Yet another example of why the death penalty is wrong.