David Pasztor has, "Hair Evidence Preserved," the Texas Observer's online edition.
A San Jacinto County district judge has ruled that a crucial piece of evidence that might help determine whether Texas executed an innocent man almost seven years ago must be preserved while The Texas Observer, the Innocence Project, and other criminal justice groups pursue a lawsuit seeking to have it tested by an independent laboratory.
Judge Elizabeth Coker on Monday issued a temporary restraining order barring county officials from destroying evidence in the case of Claude Howard Jones, who was executed on December 7, 2000, for killing a liquor store owner. Coker scheduled a hearing for October 3 to consider allowing DNA testing of a hair found at the crime scene.
Jones’s conviction rested largely on a single, 1-inch strand of hair found on the liquor store counter. A state expert testified at trial that the hair closely resembled Jones’, but it was never subjected to DNA testing.
The Observer, the New-York-based Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network have filed a public records request seeking to have the hair released and turned over to a lab certified by the state Department of Public Safety for testing.
Jones, a multiple felon, professed his innocence until he was executed. DNA testing of the hair not available at the time of his trial should indicate whether Jones was, in fact, the killer, or cast greater suspicion on two other suspects who blamed Jones for the killing and escaped the death penalty.
The Observer also has, "Truth Hangs by a Hair."
One strand of hair, a piece of evidence crucial to determining whether Texas executed an innocent man almost seven years ago, is apparently at risk of being destroyed by San Jacinto County officials who are resisting a formal request by The Texas Observer, the Innocence Project, and other criminal justice organizations to make it available for independent scientific testing.
Observer lawyers are calling on San Jacinto County District Attorney Bill Burnett to preserve the hair until a lawsuit determines whether it must be released under state open-records laws. DNA testing might provide a strong indication as to whether Claude Howard Jones was, in fact, innocent of the murder for which he was executed.
"If the state of Texas did execute an innocent man, the people of Texas deserve to know what was done in their name," said Observer Executive Editor Jake Bernstein. "This case begs for further examination. It's not as if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has an exemplary track record when it comes to scrutinizing death sentences."
The 1-inch hair of ambiguous origin was the only piece of physical evidence that purportedly linked Jones to the November 14, 1989, murder of liquor store owner Allen Hilzendager in Point Blank, about 85 miles north of Houston. Jones was put to death by lethal injection on December 7, 2000, the last execution conducted under former Gov. George W. Bush.
Jones maintained his innocence until his death. No DNA testing was conducted on the hair, which has remained in the files of the San Jacinto district court clerk’s office. At Jones’ 1990 trial, a state expert who examined the hair by microscope testified that of all the people known to have been in the liquor store on the day of the murder, the stray hair most closely resembled Jones’.
Shortly before his execution, Jones filed an appeal seeking new DNA testing of the hair using methods not available at the time of his trial. His appeals were rejected.
Jones also asked Bush to stay his excecution, but the case memo prepared by Bush’s staff and given to the then-governor made no mention of the possibility that DNA testing was available that might help establish Jones’ innocence. Bush rejected the request.
An AP report, "Final execution case with Bush as Texas governor is under scrutiny,"
A Texas judge on Monday sided with an anti-death penalty group seeking to find out whether an inmate was wrongly executed, ruling that officials must keep a 1-inch (2.5-centimeter)-long piece of hair that was a key piece of evidence in the man's murder trial almost two decades ago.
The Innocence Project wants to know whether Claude Jones was wrongly executed in December 2000. Jones was the last of a record 40 inmates executed in America's busiest capital punishment state that year and the last of 152 inmates put to death during now-President George W. Bush's time as Texas governor.
The piece of hair led to Jones' conviction and execution for the 1989 shooting death of a liquor store owner in San Jacinto County, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Houston.
State District Judge Elizabeth Coker set a hearing for Oct. 3 to consider whether DNA testing should be performed on the hair.
Earlier coverage is here.