Death Penalty

DNA Test Could Show Executed Texas Man was Innocent

| by Mark Berman Opposing Views

A DNA test on a strand of hair that led to a man being executed may prove  the man was actually innocent. If this turns out to be the case, it would be the first time since the death penalty was restored in the U.S. 35 years ago that someone was proven innocent after being put to death.

Claude Jones was executed in Texas in December 2000 for a murder during a liquor store robbery in 1989. Jones denied being responsible. The only evidence against him was the testimony of one of two alleged accomplices, and a single strand of hair found in the store.

During the trial, a forensics expert testified that the hair could have come from Jones, but not from the murdered store owner or the other accomplice. No DNA test was done on the hair at the time.

Under Texas law, accomplice testimony is not enough to convict a person -- there has to be some other evidence. That evidence was the hair.

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Leading up to his execution date, Jones and his lawyers were asking for a DNA test to be conducted on the hair. The problem is, that request never made it into the files given to then-Governor George W. Bush and his staff. 

Based on what he read, Bush refused to issue a reprieve. It was the last execution under Bush as Texas governor.

Barry Scheck, head of the Innocence Project which worked on Jones' case, said he believes "to a moral certainty" that Bush would have granted a 30-day reprieve had he known Jones was seeking DNA testing.

"It is absolutely outrageous that no one told him that Claude Jones was asking for a DNA test," Scheck said. "If you can't rely on the governor's staff to inform him, something is really wrong with the system."

Bush had previously shown a willingness to test DNA evidence that could prove guilt or innocence in death penalty cases.

Scheck admits the hair doesn't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jones was not guilty. But it was enough to stop the execution and at least question his conviction.

The accomplice who testified against Jones, Timothy Jordan, was never in the store. He was believed to have planned the robbery and given Jones the gun. He testified that Jones told him he was the triggerman. However, three years after Jones was executed, Jodan recanted his story.

Despite the new evidence, former San Jacinto County Sheriff Lacy Rogers said he is convinced Jones committed the crime — "without a doubt in my mind."

So is the victim's brother. "I still think he was guilty," Joe Hilzendager said. "I think they executed the right man."

A spokesman for Bush, who is on a book tour, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jones, 60 when he was executed, certainly was no angel. He was a career criminal who had killed in the past -- while serving a 21-year prison sentence in Kansas, he poured a flammable liquid on his cellmate and set him on fire, killing him.

Still, he may not have committed the crime that led to his death.

"At the very least, if they had tested his DNA before he was executed, he could have gotten a new trial or his sentence overturned or changed," his son Duane Jones said. He said his father "told me that he had robbed banks, that he was a thief. But he wasn't a person who would go out and murder someone on the street."