State's Case Hung by a Hair

New DNA testing calls into question execution of Claude Jones

State's Case Hung by a Hair

Yet again, evidence suggests that Texas may have executed an innocent man. This time the possible mistake comes in the case of Claude Jones, executed in December 2000 for the murder of liquor store owner Allen Hilzendager a decade earlier.

Jones had driven to the store the night Hilzendager died with Danny Dixon, who’d been convicted of a previous murder and was then on parole. Despite Dixon’s history, the state argued that Jones entered the store alone and shot Hilzendager three times – a position they backed up with the testimony of an expert who claimed that a hair found on the store counter was a visible match to Jones’ hair. (Interestingly, that testimony came after the expert, chemist Stephen Robertson, initially said that the sample was too small to do a visual comparison – an assessment subsequently shared by outside expert Nicholas Petraco.)

Notably, the hair was never subjected to DNA testing, and Jones proclaimed his innocence up until his death, carried out under the watch of then-Gov. George W. Bush. Jones asked for a reprieve in order to have the hair tested, but he was denied the stay. Notably, the execution memo provided to Bush by his general counsel’s office prior to Jones’ execution made no mention of the defendant’s request for evidence testing. “I have no doubt that if… 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-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, in a press statement.

Now, however, the results of newly performed DNA testing demonstrate that the hair found at the crime scene was not Jones’ – the test revealed that the hair belonged to Hilzendager, meaning there was no evidence linking Jones to the crime.

The evidence in Jones’ case was set to be destroyed, a plan that was halted after the Innocence Project and The Texas Observer filed suit to get access to the evidence to have it tested. In June, District Judge Paul Murphy agreed, ruling that the state must turn over the biological evidence for testing. “The DNA results released today may not prove that Jones was innocent, but they do raise serious questions about whether the prosecution’s case was strong enough to present to a jury, and the decision to seek the death penalty in the first place,” said former Texas Gov. Mark White in a press statement. “No matter what your opinion of the death penalty, I hope we can all agree that it should only be used when the state is absolutely sure that the right person has been convicted.”

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

wrongful conviction, Claude Jones, Allen Hilzendager, Innocence Project, Mark White, Barry Scheck, death penalty, courts

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