When Texas gets it dead wrong

November 24, 2010

Revelations about innocent prisoners on Texas death row show why such a corrupt system shouldn't have the power over life and death. Lily Hughes explains.

CLAUDE JONES was executed in 2000 in the state of Texas--just one of 152 men and women put to death during George W. Bush's reign as governor.

Ten years later, the case is making headlines. The forensics evidence used to convict Jones of capital murder was submitted for DNA. The result: the DNA doesn't match.

A single hair found at the crime scene, supposedly proven to belong to Jones, was the key piece of evidence in his conviction. The hair was recently tested at the request of the Texas Observer and the New York-based Innocence Project--and was found to match the victim of the crime.

"The DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, in a statement. "Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life."

The original trial took place in 1990. A forensics expert hired by the district attorney examined the hair under a microscope, comparing it with samples taken from 15 people who were in the liquor store the day the holdup and murder took place. Visual comparison is an inaccurate method, but was commonplace at the time. The forensics expert testified at the trial that the hair belonged to Jones. But he did concede that "[t]echnology has not advanced where we can tell you that this hair came from that person. Can't be done."

Claude Jones, photographed on the day before his execution
Claude Jones, photographed on the day before his execution

The Observer pointed out that the DNA results don't prove Jones was innocent. The other piece of evidence against him was the testimony of an accused accomplice.

But under Texas law, accomplice testimony can't be the sole basis for a conviction--there must be other independent evidence to bolster it.

When Jones was approaching an execution date in 2000, DNA testing was possible. Claude's appellate attorneys applied for testing, but were denied. When the case came across Bush's desk during the clemency process, the application for DNA testing was left out of the file. Bush had shown a willingness to grant stays for DNA testing before, and Scheck says he believes the execution would have been halted if the governor had known of the request.

JONES ALWAYS maintained his innocence, and it's clear that the DNA testing shows he should never have been found guilty, much less given a death sentence.

This case follows renewed scrutiny of the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters. Several arson experts reexamined the prosecution evidence and say the "expert" witnesses at the trial were incompetents who didn't understand basic science and ignored details that should have exonerated Willingham.

Coming on the heels of the doubts about Willingham's execution, the Jones case should break the back of the cracked death penalty system in Texas. So why hasn't it?

Some commentators argue that because the DNA testing isn't clear evidence of Jones' innocence, it shouldn't make any difference. But many in Texas feel differently. As an editorial in the Dallas Morning News put it:

Does that mean he was innocent? We may never know. But this new information not only undermines the case as it was presented to jurors in 1990, it further shakes our confidence in the post-conviction system that is meant to safeguard against fatal and irreversible mistakes.

To judge from the stories about wrongful convictions and executions that continue to pile up, "safeguarding against fatal and irreversible mistakes" is something our system has repeatedly failed to do.

At the end of October, Anthony Graves was let free after serving 18 years in prison--14 on Texas death row--for a crime he didn't commit. Anthony spent the last four years in a Burleson County Jail awaiting a new trial in the murder of six people, when the prosecutor's office suddenly decided to drop all the charges.

"He's an innocent man," said District Attorney Bill Parham. "There is nothing that connects Anthony Graves to this crime. I did what I did because that's the right thing to do."

A few days later, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was questioned about the Graves case. "I think we have a justice system that is working, and he's a good example of--you continue to find errors that were made and clear them up," Perry said. "That's the good news for us, is that we are a place that continues to allow that to occur. So I think our system works well; it goes through many layers of observation and appeal, etc. So I think our system is working."

But the mistakes in the Graves case weren't caught by the system. It took years of dedicated students and defense attorneys doing pro bono investigation to uncover the mountain of evidence pointing to Anthony's innocence.

There was never any shred of physical evidence linking him to the crime. The only witness against Graves had recanted his testimony years before, including to the prosecutor just hours before Anthony's trial. Robert Carter, who was executed for his role in the crime, had written at least half a dozen people over the years, declaring that Anthony was innocent.

Despite this, Anthony was repeatedly denied relief in the Texas courts--a federal appeals court finally overturned his conviction.

In the Claude Jones case, it was a progressive Texas magazine working with the Innocence Project that pushed for DNA testing--not the district attorney or the higher courts. The truth about Perry's bizarre claim that the system is working is that the exact opposite is true.

GIVEN HIS behavior in the Willingham case, Perry is the last person to look to for honest answers about the Texas criminal justice system. Perry and the courts both refused to stop the 2004 execution.

After Willingham was put to death, a report prepared for the Texas Forensic Science Commission by arson expert Craig Beyler accused the initial investigators of ignoring current scientific methods and basing their finding of arson on "folklore" and "myths."

Perry's response? In October 2009, he removed three of the commission's board members--including the chair--two days before they were scheduled to review Beyler's report on the Willingham case. Perry appointed a strongly pro-death penalty district attorney, John Bradley, as the head of the commission, and he has continued the effort to force the commission to backburner the case.

More recently, Willingham's lawyers were granted a court of inquiry, which could determine whether he should be granted a posthumous exoneration. In response, Forensics Science Commission head Bradley claimed publicly that Willingham was a "monster"--and complained that abolitionists were trying to use the case to impeach the death penalty.

The statements prompted an outcry from scientists on the commission, who were upset that the head of a supposedly neutral body tasked to examine evidence in a high-profile case would make such biased and inflammatory comments. Bradley showed once again that supporters of the death penalty are trying to prop up a broken and corrupt system.

The revelations about the evidence in the Claude Jones case are part of a long line of injustices that have been exposed in Texas. There is no doubt that more cases involving botched forensics evidence, racial bias and inadequate defense will emerge. But how many more have to come to light before Texas declares enough is enough?

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