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New DNA Evidence Casts Doubt on Texas Execution

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On December 7, 2000, Claude Jones was executed in Texas for the 1989 murder of a shop owner in East Texas. The evidence against Mr. Jones included a co-defendant to the crime (who later recanted his testimony), and a single hair found at the scene which forensic technicians testified belonged to Mr. Jones, and not the victim. Yesterday, DNA testing of the hair found that, in fact, it came from the victim and not Mr. Jones, once again leaving citizens wondering whether an innocent man was executed.

At the time of the trial, DNA testing was not available. However, by the time of his scheduled execution, mitochondrial DNA testing of hair could be done. The day before his death, Mr. Jones asked then-Governor George W. Bush for a stay of execution so the hair could be tested. Mr. Bush, apparently, was never informed of the request, and the execution went ahead as planned.

While it was never doubted that Mr. Jones was present at the store when the owner was shot (he had always maintained that we was outside in a pickup truck) and that his co-defendant was the one who went inside and committed the murder. At trial, another co-defendant testified that it was Jones who was the shooter. Under Texas law, this would have been inadequate to convict Mr. Jones, as accomplice liability by itself is insufficient for a prosecution. When investigators found a hair at the scene, technicians compared it microscopically to Claude Jones and declared it a “match.” The technicians also testified that the hair did not belong to the victim. Based upon that evidence, Claude Jones was convicted and executed.

After the execution, in 2007, the Innocence Project in New York and the Texas Observer newspaper sued to obtain the hair from the police for testing. Police and prosecutors fought the request and announced instead their intention to destroy the evidence. A federal judge ordered the testing earlier this year, and the result became available just this week.

While the evidence does not establish Mr. Jones’ innocence of the crime, it certainly calls into question his conviction. As Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck said yesterday, “the DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong. Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life.”

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project supports a free-standing right of prisoners to obtain DNA evidence where such evidence is available and where testing could help establish that the inmate is factually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.

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