Late last week, Mitotyping, a DNA lab in State College, PA, released results that demonstrate that Texas should not have executed Claude Jones in 2000. The Texas Observer reports:
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.
Now, this doesn’t prove that he is innocent and, as the article states, Jones was no saint. But the key point here is that Texas prosecutors could not have convicted Jones, much less sent him to his death, had this result been known at the time of trial. See, the prosecution needed this one hair to “match” Jones because without it, they would only be left with the testimony of an accomplice who stated that Jones confessed to the shooting. Texas law did not allow a conviction based solely on the testimony of an accomplice. None of the eyewitnesses to the shooting could provide a positive ID. So where the law is inconveniently protective of Claude Jones’ right not to be prosecuted and convicted based on what most agree is inherently unreliable accomplice testimony, the prosecutor filled the void with equally unreliable forensic evidence that acted as affirmative evidence of guilt and papered over the unreliability of the accomplice testimony.
While the DNA technology was not available at the time of trial, it was available at the time of execution. But then-Governor George Bush’s staff failed ot give him the information about the availability of DNA testing on the eve of execution in 2000:
But in 2000, when Jones was fighting for his life, it could be done. On December 6, 2000, the day before the execution, Jones’ attorneys filed a last-ditch motion for a stay—in district court and with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—so they could submit the strand of hair for mitochondrial DNA testing. Both courts turned him down.
Jones’ last hope was Gov. Bush, who in December 2000 was embroiled in the Florida recount controversy that followed the presidential election. Bush had already overseen the execution of 151 people during his governorship, but he’d also expressed support for DNA testing. Earlier that year, Bush had granted a 30-day stay to Ricky McGinn so that DNA testing could be conducted on key evidence in the case. (The tests would prove McGinn’s guilt and he was executed.) Bush, explaining his decision in the McGinn case to CNN in June 2000, said, “To the extent that DNA can prove for certain innocence or guilt, I think we need to use DNA.”
But Bush was never told about Jones’ request for DNA testing. Through a public-information request, the Innocence Project obtained the Dec. 7, 2000, memo that lawyers in the governor’s office sent to Bush, briefing him on the circumstances of Jones’ pending execution. The four-page memo doesn’t mention Jones’ request for DNA testing. Rather, it describes the disputed hair evidence as “testimony from a chemist employed by DPS that the hair samples taken from the crime scene matched those taken from Jones.”
The memo from the general counsel’s office concludes, “At this time, I do not recommend that a reprieve be granted.” Jones was executed a few hours later.
This case confirms what we already know. The judicial and clemency remedies available to a death-sentenced inmate, despite all our rhetoric to the contrary, are just inadequate to safeguard against this type of wrongful execution, or worse the execution of an innocent person. The alleged “best criminal justice system in the world” is no match for the political blood-lust that exists in America’s death penalty system.