Blood on Our Hands: Why the Jones Case Matters

What the DNA results tell Texas citizens—and journalists


On Friday morning in Houston, I spoke at a news conference discussing the upshot of the Observer‘s successful lawsuit to preserve and test DNA evidence that might have posthumously exonerated Claude Jones, who was executed on Dec. 7, 2000. Former Gov. Mark White, Innocence Project director Barry Scheck, and attorneys from Mayer Brown, the firm that won the suit, also addressed the media along with Jones’ son, Duane.

As Dave Mann has reported, the DNA evidence didn’t prove Jones’ innocence—but it did show that he was convicted, and executed, based on false evidence. And documents dredged up by the lawsuit showed that Gov. George W. Bush, making his last decision on an execution in Texas, was not informed that Jones was requesting DNA testing that might exonerate him.

Watch Dave Mann’s interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow

As Gov. White said, “a mere memo written by a subordinate member of Bush’s staff made this life-and-death decision.”

With two Texas executions—Jones’ and Cameron Todd Willingham’s—now known to have been based on false forensic evidence and mishandled by the state, every citizens’ conscience should be shaken to the core, no matter their opinion on the death penalty. We can all agree, surely, that the highest punishment should be reserved for those who are guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. In Texas, we now know, that fundamental moral and ethical standard has not applied.

Here’s what I had to say this morning about what the case means, for Texas citizens and for Texas journalists:

It’s a bit unusual for me to be on this side of a press conference. And it might be unusual for a media outlet to be co-plaintiff in a lawsuit like this one. We don’t go around suing people much; we’re too busy steering clear of being sued ourselves. But for the Observer, this was a critically important case of the public’s right to know. That’s a right that journalists fight for every day—and here in Texas, as most of you know, it can be one hell of a fight.

But there was more than a First Amendment principle at stake in the case of Claude Jones: The people of Texas had a right to know whether they had blood on their hands—whether they had been responsible, together, for the murder of an innocent man.

In the past few years, Texans have learned some very disturbing truths about the way their state carries out its most solemn duty, administering the death penalty. That’s been thanks in small part to the efforts of journalists in publications as far-flung as the Observer and the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker, but also to criminal-justice activists like the Innocence Project, truth-seekers like Duane Jones, truth-tellers like Gov. White, and socially conscious attorneys like those at Mayer Brown. That’s what it takes. And we were proud to be on this team.

As citizens of Texas, we are also both profoundly sad and outraged at what we’ve learned from these DNA results and from the documents that emerged from this process.

In this case, Gov. Bush did not get the essential information about Claude Jones’ appeal that he should have had before making his fatal decision. In the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted and executed based on faulty arson forensics, Gov. Rick Perry either did not know about expert reports debunking the evidence against, or he ignored them. In 2007, in the case of Michael Richard, Judge Sharon Keller closed her court at 5 p.m. and blocked his attorneys from filing a last-minute appeal.

Even those who support the death penalty should be deeply concerned about this pattern. The most notorious case is Willingham’s, of course. But as we see today, it’s not the only case where Texas has executed someone on the basis of faulty evidence.

Executing an innocent person is the worst-case scenario, of course. But as The Observer has reported in 2009 and 2010, there are also hundreds of Texans in prison because they were convicted by false arson forensics or faulty blood-spatter analysis DNA is now reliable, but other forensic evidence continues to be employed in faulty ways and to convict innocent Texans.

The people of Texas needed to know whether Claude Jones was indeed guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. Now we know that he was not.

Given what we know now, it’s clear how important it was that the people of Texas had access to this information. We now know more about the workings, and shortcomings, of our criminal-justice system. And what we know is deeply unsettling.

Now it’s our collective responsibility to make sure that what happened to Willingham and Jones cannot happen again. And it’s Texas journalists’ responsibility to continue ferreting out the hard-won truth about the injustices that have already occurred.