Claude Jones was a Texas inmate who was executed ten years ago. He protested his innocence of the crime for which he was put to death till the end. Now we may get to see if he was telling the truth about that.
Visiting Judge Paul C. Murphy this week ordered testing of a strand of hair from Claude Jones’ case that death penalty opponents believe might provide the first DNA proof that an innocent man was executed.
Murphy issued a summary judgment in favor of the New York-based Innocence Project and The Texas Observer, an Austin newsmagazine, which three years ago petitioned to do mitochondrial DNA testing on a hair fragment recovered from the counter of Zell’s liquor store in Point Blank, about 65 miles north of Houston.
San Jacinto District Attorney Bill Burnett, who had assisted in the prosecution and died this month from pancreatic cancer, blocked the hair’s release. He argued state law provided no legal avenue for him to relinquish the 1-inch strand after Claude Jones’ death.
Neither Burnett’s attorney, David Walker, nor the first assistant, Jonathan Petix, who has temporarily replaced Burnett, could be reached for comment on whether they will appeal.
A key witness during the trial, Timothy Jordan, has recently recanted his testimony that Claude Jones had confessed being the triggerman to him. Jordan now says [co-defendant Kerry] Dixon told him that Claude Jones did it. Dixon, who has made no police statements, is currently serving a life sentence for his part.
But Walker has contended DNA testing cannot provide conclusive proof of Claude Jones’ innocence, only propaganda for those opposing the death penalty. He notes two other witnesses described seeing a pot-bellied, middle-aged man wearing clothing like Claude Jones’ enter the store, although neither could positively identify him.
Petix has also said releasing the hair could open a “floodgate” of requests for things such as O.J. Simpson’s gloves. They contended state law only allows a defendant to request DNA testing.
That’s kind of a tough standard for Jones to meet, what with him being dead and all. You can get some more details on the case, and the case for Jones’ innocence, from the Observer. I have two points to make:
1. To this day, I do not understand the fierce resistance that DAs like Bill Burnett put up to post-facto DNA testing. I get that at some point you have to declare a case over, but the Burnetts of the world always come across as fearful to me. If you’re so damn sure you’ve convicted the right guy and that this whole exercise is nothing but a propaganda ploy by death penalty opponents, why not call their bluff? If I knew I was right I’d welcome the opportunity to prove it to God and everyone. What better way to give the middle finger to all those annoying activists who’ve been pestering you all these years? Unless of course you’re really not at all sure you’re right and you’ll do anything in your power to find out. Which is why these guys all look like a bunch of fraidy cats to me.
2. The oft-made “it would open the floodgates” claim is specious on its face. Only a small percentage of crimes involve DNA evidence, and in many cases where it existed it wasn’t preserved after the conviction. Dallas, the hotbed of DNA exonerations, is that way because its longtime DA, Henry Wade, was bizarrely obsessed with preserving evidence, and they’ve basically run out of cases to review in less than four years. There would be an initial spike, sure, but it wouldn’t take more than a couple of years to work through it all. Just eliminating the drawn-out court battles over whether or not to do the testing in the first place would make it all go a lot faster.