Judge orders San Jacinto County officials not to destroy evidence in Jones case while Observer lawsuit proceeds
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 judge today recognized that this case raises very serious issues about the integrity of the criminal justice system. We’re grateful that the state will not be able to destroy this evidence before DNA testing can be conducted,” said Nina Morrison, staff attorney at the Innocence Project. “We are hopeful that the judge will also see that it’s in everyone’s interests to conduct DNA testing that could resolve serious, lingering questions about this case. DNA testing could show that Claude Jones was guilty, or it could show that the state had no basis for executing him. The public has a right to know whether Claude Jones committed the crime for which he was executed, and today’s ruling moves us one important step closer to learning the truth.”