DNA test casts doubt on another Texas execution

Zachary Roth
November 12, 2010
Claude Jones
Claude Jones

During the tumultuous days of the 2000 Florida recount, George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, approved the execution of Claude Jones, who had been convicted in the murder of a liquor-store owner. Now, 10 years later, evidence has emerged casting doubt on Jones's guilt — marking the second time this year that the guilt of a man executed in Texas has been seriously called into question.

A DNA test of a single hair — the only piece of physical evidence linking Jones to the crime scene — has shown that it did not belong to him, reports the Associated Press. The test was conducted as part of a case brought by Jones's son, with the help of the Innocence Project, a New York legal center that uses DNA testing to exonerate death-row inmates.

Barry Scheck, who runs the Innocence Project, said the result means the evidence was insufficient under Texas law to convict Jones.

At issue is the 1989 killing of liquor-store owner Allen Hilzendager, who was shot three times outside the town of Point Blank.

Jones, a career criminal, was convicted of the crime and executed on December 7, 2000. In the days leading up to the execution, Jones continued to proclaim his innocence, and pressed the office of then-Gov. Bush for permission to do a DNA test on the hair. But documents obtained by the Innocence Project show that the briefing papers given to Bush by his staff didn't mention Jones's request for the test. Bush was at the time enmeshed in the recount dispute that would end with him being declared president.

"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."

Had Bush known about the request, he might have granted it. He had granted at least one similar request before.

Jones was no angel. While serving a prison sentence in Kansas, Jones killed his cellmate by pouring a flammable liquid on him and setting him on fire.

Former San Jacinto County Sheriff Lacy Rogers said he's convinced that Jones committed the crime for which he was executed. "Without a doubt in my mind," said Lacy.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed more people than any other state — and this is the second recent case in which the guilt of a man put to death by the state has been thrown into doubt. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. But since then, several scientific experts have said the finding of arson can't be supported, pointing to serious flaws in the original investigation.

To Scheck, the test result in the Jones case shows that the death-penalty system offers too great a chance of wrongly executing an innocent person. "Reasonable people can disagree about the moral appropriateness of the death penalty," he said. "The issue that has arisen is the risk of executing the wrong person," he said.

"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," Jones's son, Duane, said yesterday. 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."

(Photo: AP/Pat Sullivan)