Texas Observer and organizations that address wrongful convictions today filed motions in state court in the case of Claude Jones, executed in 2000
(SAN JACINTO COUNTY, TX; September 7, 2007) – Advanced DNA testing could prove whether a Texas man was wrongfully executed in 2000, so a state court should issue an immediate order preventing local officials from destroying the evidence and should also order DNA testing in the case, papers filed today in state court said.
The Texas Observer, the Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network filed motions in state court in San Jacinto County, Texas, today asking for a temporary restraining order that would prevent officials from destroying the only piece of physical evidence in the case – a hair from the crime scene – and seeking a court order to conduct DNA testing that could determine whether the hair matches Claude Jones, who was convicted of murder in 1990 and executed on December 7, 2000.
The hair, which was found on the counter in a liquor store where a man was shot and killed, was central in Jones’ trial and post-conviction appeals. An expert for the state testified at the trial that the hair was consistent with Jones’. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, narrowly upheld Jones’ conviction, in a 3-2 ruling where the majority specifically cited the hair evidence as the necessary “corroboration” to uphold the conviction.
“The San Jacinto District Attorney, who was one of the prosecutors during Claude Jones’ trial, told us this week that he will not agree to DNA testing without a court order. We are asking for an emergency order from the court that will mandate testing and prevent officials from destroying this evidence in the meantime,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “The public has a right to know whether Claude Jones actually committed the crime for which he was executed, and whether a serious breakdown in the state’s legal and political process led to a wrongful execution. Public confidence in the criminal justice system is at stake.”
In the days prior to Jones’ execution, his attorneys appealed to courts and to then-Governor George Bush’s office for a stay of execution so that DNA testing on the hair could be conducted. Documents later obtained by the Innocence Project through Open Records Act requests show that Governor Bush’s staff did not include the possibility of DNA testing in the material they prepared for him about the request for a stay of execution, which was denied. (The request for a stay of execution was being handled by Bush’s office during the period of the Florida vote recount after the 2000 presidential election.) Several months earlier, Governor Bush granted another death row inmate’s clemency request so that DNA testing could be conducted; at the time, Bush said, “Any time DNA can be used in its context and can be relevant as to the guilt or innocence of a person on death row, we need to use it.” Several weeks later, DNA results showed that the man, Ricky McGinn, was guilty and he was executed.
Other than the hair, the primary evidence against Jones was testimony from Timothy Jordan, who said that Jones told him he committed the murder. Jordan and Kerry Dixon were initially arrested for the November 1989 liquor store robbery and murder in San Jacinto County. Jones was later arrested, and he and Dixon were charged in the crime. In an affidavit in 2004, Jordan stated that everything he reported at trial about the robbery and killing he learned from Dixon, not from Jones. Jordan’s affidavit also states that he testified against Jones in an attempt to receive a reduced sentence in this case and an unrelated robbery.
According to the Innocence Project, mitochondrial DNA testing on the hair evidence could establish any of the following:
(1)Jones was guilty;
(2)the hair comes from the charged accomplice Dixon, which would strongly support a claim Jones was innocent (since Dixon denied being present in the store); or
(3) the hair came from the victim or some other individual, which, by excluding Jones and contradicting the critical evidence against him at trial and relied on by the appeals courts, would mean there was not legally sufficient evidence to convict Jones, much less execute him.
On August 31, 2007, attorneys at Mayer Brown LLP sent Open Records Act requests to San Jacinto County District Attorney Bill Burnett and District Court Clerk Rebecca Capers, asking for access to the hair evidence to perform DNA testing. Burnett denied the request earlier this week, two days after telling attorneys that he didn’t think DNA testing on the hair is scientifically possible (since the hair does not have a follicle) and that Jones confessed to the crime in his final statement in the execution chamber.
“None of the reasons the District Attorney has given for denying our request are valid,” said Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison. “Mitochondrial DNA testing on this hair is definitely possible, and similar testing has exonerated several people who were wrongfully convicted in other cases. We don’t know what the testing will show, but mitochondrial DNA testing can and should be conducted on this evidence. The record from both the trial and the appeals clearly show that the hair, which is the only physical evidence against Jones, was key to securing and upholding his conviction. Eyewitness testimony in this case was shaky at best and did not identify Jones, and Jones did not confess to this crime in the execution chamber. He told the victim’s family that he hoped they would find closure and that he was sorry for their loss.”
“The bottom line is that Claude Jones was convicted based on the hair evidence and testimony from Timothy Jordan. Jordan has already said, in a sworn affidavit, that his testimony was false, and DNA testing on the hair could definitely show whether or not Claude Jones was guilty,” Morrison said.
Texas leads the nation in the number of innocent people who were exonerated through DNA testing after being wrongfully convicted. Across the state, 29 people have been exonerated with DNA since 1994. They served a total of 354 years in prison. Nationwide, 207 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, 15 of whom were sentenced to die, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.
The Texas Observer, the Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network are represented by Mayer Brown LLP in Houston and New York.