Executing Justice

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Every few months, it seems, we hear of another death penalty case based on flawed forensic evidence. An alarming number of them have cropped up in Texas, the nation’s most active death penalty state. The latest involves a career criminal named Claude Jones, who was executed in 2000 for murdering a liquor-store owner in East Texas. Jones maintained his innocence until his dying day. The key piece of evidence that convicted Jones was a single strand of hair found at the scene that a prosecution expert testified “matched” Jones. We now know that’s not true. DNA testing conducted at the request of the Observer and the New York-based Innocence Project showed the hair belonged to the victim, Allen Hilzendager. As Dave Mann reports, the DNA results don’t posthumously exonerate Jones, but they do undermine the only forensic evidence that sent him to Texas’ death chamber. Without the hair, there is no evidence of Jones’ guilt. 

The developments in the Jones case are troubling enough, but even more disturbing is the larger pattern. We’re still learning all the details of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, but it’s clear that he was executed in 2004 based on flawed arson evidence. In September, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Texas death row prisoner Hank Skinner, who claims that DNA evidence could exonerate him before he’s executed.

We can’t be sure that Jones, Willingham, Skinner or any other defendant with a disputed case is innocent. But we do know that Texas has meted out the ultimate punishment based on forensic evidence that was incorrect. That can’t continue.

With a moratorium on executions unlikely to gain traction in the Texas Legislature, we have a modest proposal to improve the system: Require the state’s Forensic Science Commission to review every pending execution. The commission is a panel of scientists and attorneys created in 2005 to improve forensic evidence in Texas. The Legislature should mandate a review of forensic evidence in every death case once an execution date has been set. The commission could then make a recommendation to the courts and the governor’s office about the reliability of the forensic evidence. This extra step wouldn’t prolong what is already a lengthy review process. Far more important, it would add a layer of scientific expertise that the system currently lacks.

It’s too late to correct the flaws in the Jones and Willingham cases. But it’s not too late to learn from those tragic mistakes. And learn we must. Death sentences are irreversible. We can’t afford to get a single one wrong.

Read about faulty blood-spatter forensics