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An answer in the Claude Jones case

Back in June, I noted the case of Claude Jones, who had been executed in 2000 for a murder committed in 1990. The main piece of evidence used to convict him was a single strand of hair that a forensic expert who examined it under a microscope testified belonged to Jones. It was not subjected to DNA testing. In June, after a three-year court battle, the Innocence Project and the Texas Observer won the right to have DNA testing performed on that hair. The results are in, and they show that it did not belong to Claude Jones.

The tests do not offer conclusive proof of Jones’ innocence, but raise questions about his conviction, which was largely based on the hair fragment, the only physical evidence against him.

Thursday’s announcement came as vindication to Jones’ son, Houston associate engineer Duane Jones, 50, who was reunited with his father only after the elder man found himself on death row.

“I was 98 percent sure of what he was telling me,” Duane Jones said of the convicted killer’s claim of innocence, “but now I believe him 100 percent. He was railroaded. He did not shoot that man. I think not only am I owed an apology, but so is everybody in the whole state of Texas.”

[Then-Gov. George W.] Bush’s decision to reject Jones’ plea for a 30-day reprieve the day before he was executed followed the recommendation of his staff counsel Claudia Nadig, whose confidential report to the governor made no mention of the condemned man’s request for DNA testing, despite that being the reason a stay was sought by Jones’ lawyers.

“I have no doubt that if President Bush had known about the request to do a DNA test of the hair he would have issued a 30-day stay in this case and Jones would not have been executed,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which joined the Texas Observer, an Austin-based political journal, in calling for the new tests.

Just prior to the Jones’ appeal, Scheck noted, Bush had endorsed the post-conviction use of DNA testing to establish guilt or innocence in questionable cases.

Had DNA testing been performed in 2000, Scheck said, Jones’ conviction likely would have been reversed. “It’s a pretty significant event to know someone was executed wrongly,” Scheck said.

Given that Bush is now out on a national tour promoting his new book, I’m sure this question will be asked of him again. I wonder what he’ll have to say about it. For that matter, someone should pester Ms. Nadig until she explains why she kept that information from the Governor. Seems to me there’s a pretty strong moral case to be made that she is directly responsible for Jones’ death. I wouldn’t want something like that on my conscience.

Anyway, you should read the Observer story, which goes into a lot more detail. Again, this doesn’t mean Jones was innocent, but it does mean that if this result had been known that he likely never would have been tried for the crime. Note also the use of the jailhouse snitch and his convenient testimony, which he has since recanted, that Jones confessed to him. The reason these cases keep cropping up is because the emphasis for prosecutors is on getting a conviction rather than getting it right. As long as that’s what we incentivize, that’s what we’re gonna get. Grits and Bob Moser have more, and a statement from Sen. Rodney Ellis is beneath the fold.

Sen. Rodney Ellis issued the following statement regarding new DNA tests showing that important hair evidence used to convict and execute Claude Jones was fatally flawed:

“Something is terribly wrong with Texas’ criminal justice system. Today we learned that the hair evidence used to convict and execute Claude Jones was flawed, and DNA testing has now proven that the hair was not his. Jones requested a 30-day reprieve from then President-elect Bush to conduct a DNA test on the hair, but the General Counsel memo to then President-elect Bush failed to let him know that Jones was seeking DNA testing of the only physical evidence in the case. That is simply unacceptable and raises serious concerns about the post-conviction review process for death row inmates in Texas.

Months before Mr. Jones was executed, then-Governor Bush recommended that I issue a 30-day reprieve for Ricky McGinn while I was serving as acting Governor when he was on the presidential campaign trail. I issued that reprieve, stating at the time, ‘I sincerely believe in the principle of swift and sure punishment, but our paramount concern must always be to ensure that justice is done.’ Then-Governor Bush said of McGinn’s reprieve, ‘To the extent that DNA can help in innocence or guilt, particularly in death penalty cases, but in all cases, I think that’s very valid, very important.’ With that in mind, I believe that President Bush would have seriously considered a reprieve for Claude Jones and he could be alive today now that we know the hair found at the crime scene was not his.

In addition to Jones’ execution based on questionable evidence, a couple of weeks ago we learned that Anthony Graves spent 18 years in prison – twelve of them on death row – for a murder with zero physical evidence linking him to the crime. While a case review by prosecutors set him free, prosecutorial misconduct destroyed his life.

It would be disturbing enough if these were isolated incidents, but these compounding miscarriages of justice are clear and convincing evidence that our justice system is broken and we need to take the necessary steps to fix it. I hope my friends in the Legislature and the Governor will join with me next session in passing legislation endorsed by the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. The bi-partisan panel comprised of criminal justice stakeholders recommended such common-sense reforms like improving eyewitness identification procedures, recording interrogations, and updating the post-conviction DNA testing statute. In addition, additional funding of indigent defense is sorely needed, as are more public defender offices to remove the inherent conflict of interest of judges appointing lawyers. All of these reforms and many others are needed if we are going to restore Texans’ faith in the accuracy and integrity of our state’s criminal justice system.”

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