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.
“The DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, in a statement. “Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life.”
None of this is as horrible as Kanye West making Bush sad!
But to be fair:
Documents show that attorneys in the governor’s office failed to inform Bush that DNA evidence might exonerate Jones. Bush, a proponent of DNA testing in death penalty cases, had previously halted another execution so that key DNA evidence could be examined. Without knowing that Jones wanted DNA testing, Bush let the execution go forward.
Now to be clear, Jones was quite a scumbag, and he was present at the heist. But there is dispute as to whether he was the trigger man. His two accomplices are serving in prison -- the other possible shooter got 60 years. Waiting in a getaway car isn't a capital offense, not even in Texas.
The case highlight the problems with a criminal justice system that killed a man without meeting the minimum standards of evidence. Whether you agree with the morality of capital punishment, the very real possibility of putting even one wrong person to death should be enough to make everyone pause.