Hair casts doubt on executed man’s guilt
New DNA tests show it likely wasn’t his, but the victim’s instead
By ALLAN TURNER, CINDY HORSWELL and MIKE TOLSON
Nov. 12, 2010, 12:10AM
Pat Sullivan Associated Press
This photo shows family snapshots taken at Texas’ death row on Dec. 6, 2000, the day before Claude Howard Jones was executed for a Point Blank, Texas, robbery-murder.
A strand of light-colored hair prosecutors insisted linked career criminal Claude Jones to the robbery-murder of a San Jacinto County liquor store owner likely came from the victim, not from the accused killer, DNA testing revealed on Thursday.
The new DNA testing came one decade after Jones’ lawyer filed an unsuccessful execution-eve plea to then-Gov. George Bush to grant a 30-day stay so that such high-tech testing could be performed.
Jones, 60, was executed on Dec. 7, 2000, for the November 1989 murder of Allen Hilzendager during the stickup of a Point Blank package store.
Jones consistently maintained that he was innocent of the crime.
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.”
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.
Bush, who is traveling to promote his new memoir, Decision Points,declined to comment on the case. Nadig, now a government lawyer in Washington could not be reached for comment Thursday.
“We can’t be for certain that he’s innocent because the DNA tests don’t implicate the shooter,” the Texas Observer’s Dave Mann said of Jones. “But it certainly raises troubling questions about the case. The strand of hair was the piece of evidence that tied him to this crime and put him in the liquor store doing the shooting.”
The Innocence Project and the Texas Observer sought court intervention three years ago to clear the way for further testing of the hair.
“This has cost me a lot in terms of emotion,” Jones’ son said. “I had a heart attack three years ago, turned gray and lost a lot of hair” waiting for the results.
San Jacinto County prosecutors in Jones’ trial argued that the Houston-born criminal, who had spent most of his life in Texas, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri prisons, shot the store owner three times at close range for a mere $900.
County officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The approximately one-inch strand of hair recovered from the liquor store’s counter was key evidence in the trial. Besides the hair, prosecutors relied on eyewitnesses who testified they saw a man resembling Jones enter the store and Jones’ accomplice, Timothy Jordan, who told jurors Jones had confessed shooting Hilzendager.
Jordan, who was convicted of perjury after telling conflicting stories to grand and trial jurors, later admitted he had lied during the trial. A third man, Kerry Dixon, is serving a life sentence for his part in the crime.
During the trial, a Texas Department of Public Safety chemist testified the hair, which had been subjected to microscopic examination, matched that of Jones.
But in addition to DNA testing of the hair at Mitotyping Technologies, a private Pennsylvania laboratory, a new microscopic examination of the hair was performed by City University of New York forensic scientist Nicholas Petraco.
Petraco said the hair fragment was not suitable for testing because it lacked both a root and a tip. “I could tell that it was human, that was about all,” Petraco said Thursday.
Drawing conclusions from the microscopic examination of such a fragment “only leads to problems,” he said.