DNA tests undermine key evidence in 2000 death penalty case.
The Texas Observer is reporting today the results of DNA tests that raise doubts about the guilt of Claude Jones, the last Texan executed under former Gov. George W. Bush.
The DNA tests were conducted on a single strand of hair–the key evidence that sent Jones to the death chamber on Dec. 7, 2000.
At Jones’ 1990 trial, prosecutors alleged the hair–recovered from the scene of a murder at an East Texas liquor store–“matched” Claude Jones. It was the only evidence that placed Jones in the liquor store.
But the DNA tests–conducted at the request of The Texas Observer and the Innocence Project–show that the hair sample matched the victim of the shooting, and not Jones.
The new evidence in the Jones case is the result of a three-year court battle by The Texas Observer and three innocence groups–the New York-based Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network.
Observer editor Bob Moser will join Innocence Project director Barry Scheck, former Gov. Mark White and Claude Jones’ son Duane Jones to release the test results and discuss the case at a press conference on Friday, Nov. 12, at 10 a.m. in the Bank of America lobby at 700 Louisiana St., Houston.
In 2007, the Observer and the three innocence groups sued the San Jacinto County district attorney’s office to obtain the hair, which had never been destroyed.
In June, Judge Paul Murphy ruled in favor of the Observer and the innocence groups, and ordered the San Jacinto County district attorney’s office to hand over the hair. Prosecutors decided not to appeal Murphy’s ruling. After several months of negotiating, lawyers for the Innocence Project and the Observer reached an agreement with the San Jacinto County DA’s office to transfer the hair evidence to private labs for mitochondrial DNA testing. The Observer and the Innocence Project were represented in the suit by the Houston firm Mayer Brown.
Background of the Case
On Nov. 14, 1989, Jones and Kerry Dixon stopped at a liquor store in the East Texas town of Point Blank, about 80 miles northeast of Houston. One of the two men waited in the pickup truck while the other went inside and murdered the store’s owner, 44-year-old Allen Hilzendager, with a .357 magnum revolver. The question is which man committed the murder? Each man blamed the other.
The only physical evidence that linked Jones to the murder was the hair found on the liquor-store counter. At Jones’ 1990 trial, a forensic expert testified that the hair appeared to come from Jones. But the technology didn’t exist at the time to determine if the hair matched Jones’ DNA.
Jones always maintained his innocence. By 2000, mitochondrial DNA testing had been developed. Jones requested a stay of execution to conduct DNA tests on the strand of hair. Two Texas courts rejected his request, as did then-Gov. Bush. Documents obtained from the governor’s office show that attorneys never informed Bush that Jones was requesting DNA testing.
“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 Governor and Attorney General Mark White. “If the state is going to continue to use the death penalty, it must figure out a way to build safeguards in the system so that lapses like this don’t happen again.”
Had the hair been tested a decade ago, as Jones requested, he might still be alive. “The DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong,” said Scheck of the Innocence Project. “This is yet another disturbing example of a miscarriage of justice in Texas capital murder prosecutions. Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life.”
With questions about the case and the Observer story, please call Dave Mann, Senior Editor, 512-477-0746 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Bob Moser, Editor, 347-891-4885 (email@example.com).
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Read the original Texas Observer story, Truth Hangs by a Hair.
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Contact: Julia Austin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-477-0746.
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