A state judge has ordered East Texas prosecutors to hand over key evidence from a 1989 murder case to the Innocence Project and The Texas Observer for DNA testing—analysis that may prove for the first time that Texas executed an innocent man.
The Innocence Project and the Observer filed suit in 2007 to obtain a strand of hair from the scene of a homicide 21 years ago at a liquor store in San Jacinto County. The one-inch hair was key evidence that supposedly implicated Claude Howard Jones in the killing. Jones was put to death on Dec. 7, 2000—the final execution overseen by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
On June 11, Judge Paul Murphy issued a one-page order, granting the Innocence Project and Observer’s motion for summary judgment in the case and commanding the San Jacinto district attorney’s office to turn over the hair for DNA testing.
Prosecutors can appeal the decision. Officials in the Montgomery County Attorney’s office—which has been handling the case following the sudden death of San Jacinto County DA Bill Burnett from pancreatic cancer in early June—said Tuesday that no decision has been made yet on whether to appeal.
The Innocence Project and the Observer hope that DNA tests on the hair will confirm Jones’ guilt or prove he was innocent, as he always claimed. (For Background, read the Observer’s 2007 story about the Jones case here. Time magazine also recently profiled the case here. A timeline is here.)
If DNA evidence exonerates Jones, it would mark the first time an innocent person was executed for a crime that DNA tests would later prove they didn’t commit. DNA tests have freed nearly 20 death row inmates in the United States before they were executed. Innocence attorneys and reporters have also uncovered quite a few troubling cases in which states executed inmates who were likely innocent. That includes the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham—the North Texas man put to death for starting the fire that killed his three children and who forensic experts say was convicted on flawed evidence.
But there hasn’t yet been a case in which DNA evidence has proven without a doubt that an innocent person was executed.
Questions about Jones’ guilt have long lingered.
In fall 1989, Jones, who had recently been released on parole, was hanging out with two other men, Kerry Dixon and Timothy Jordan.
On Nov. 14, 1989, witnesses said that two men pulled into a liquor store in the small town of Point Blank in rural San Jacinto County, about 80 miles northeast of Houston. The description of the vehicle matched Dixon’s pickup truck. One man went inside and shot the owner, Allen Hilzendager, three times. Witnesses who were standing across the road couldn’t positively identify the killer.
Dixon and Jordan later said that Jones was the shooter. Both men were spared the death penalty for their testimony against Jones.
Jones claimed that he never entered the store.
Beyond fuzzy eyewitness accounts, and the questionable testimony of Dixon and Jordan (who later recanted his testimony), the only reliable evidence that linked Jones to the murder was a strand of hair found on the liquor store counter.
At Jones’ 1990 trial, a forensic expert testified that the hair appeared to come from Jones. But the technology didn’t exist at the time to determine if the hair matched Jones’ DNA.
Advanced DNA testing techniques could now show if the hair was Jones’—and confirm his guilt. Or it could match Dixon, proving that he was the gunman who entered the store. That would exonerate Jones. Or tests could reveal the hair came from a third person and leave Jones’ guilt unknown.
After Judge Murphy’s recent ruling, we’re one step closer to finding out.