DNA test casts doubt on executed Texas man’s guilt

A DNA test on a single hair has cast doubt on the guilt of a Texas man who was put to death 10 years ago for a liquor-store murder — an execution that went forward after then-Gov. George W. Bush’s staff failed to tell him the condemned man was asking for genetic analysis of the strand.

The hair had been the only piece of physical evidence linking Claude Jones to the crime scene. But the recently completed DNA analysis found it did not belong to Jones and instead may have come from the murder victim.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York legal center that uses DNA to exonerate inmates and worked on Jones’ case, acknowledged that the hair doesn’t prove an innocent man was put to death. But he said the findings mean the evidence was insufficient under Texas law to convict Jones.

Jones, a career criminal who steadfastly denied killing the liquor store owner, was executed by injection on Dec. 7, 2000, in the closing weeks of Bush’s term as governor and in middle of the turbulent recount dispute in Florida that ended with Bush elected president.

As the execution drew near, Jones was pressing the governor’s office for permission to do a DNA test on the hair. But the briefing papers Bush was given by his staff didn’t include the request for the testing, and Bush denied a reprieve, according to state documents obtained by the Innocence Project.

Scheck 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. Earlier in 2000, he had granted a reprieve to a death row inmate so that Scheck and other attorneys could have evidence tested. The test confirmed the man’s guilt and he was executed.

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

The other primary evidence against Jones came from one of two alleged accomplices: Timothy Jordan, who did not enter the liquor store but was believed to have planned the robbery and provided the gun. Jordan testified that Jones told him he was the triggerman. However, under Texas law, accomplice testimony isn’t enough to convict someone and must be supported by other evidence. That other evidence was the hair.

“There was not enough evidence to convict, and he shouldn’t have been executed,” Scheck said.

Scheck, a death-penalty opponent, said the case shows that the risk of a tragic mistake by the legal system is just too high. “Reasonable people can disagree about the moral appropriateness of the death penalty. The issue that has arisen is the risk of executing the wrong person,” he said.

San Jacinto County District Attorney Bill Burnett, who prosecuted the case, died earlier this year.

“I still think he was guilty,” Joe Hilzendager, the murder victim’s brother, said Thursday. “I think they executed the right man.”

Former San Jacinto County Sheriff Lacy Rogers also said he is convinced Jones committed the crime — “without a doubt in my mind.”

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Please review our Policies and Procedures before registering or commenting

News Tribune - comments