Sunday 24 September 2017

DNA test could have saved man executed under Bush

Guy Adams in Los Angeles

THE LAST man to be executed during George W Bush's term as governor of Texas was sentenced to death on the basis of a single piece of evidence -- one human hair -- which did not actually belong to him, DNA tests have shown.

Claude Howard Jones (pictured) was convicted in 1990 of murdering an off-licence owner and was put to death by lethal injection 10 years later. He suffered the ultimate penalty because jurors were informed that a strand of his hair had been found on the floor close to the victim's body.

That now turns out to be untrue: laboratory analysis of the crucial item of evidence has revealed that it actually came from the head of the store's owner, Allen Hilzendager.

"My father never claimed to be a saint, but he always maintained that he didn't commit this murder," Jones's son, Duane, said yesterday. "I hope these results will serve as a wake-up call . . . serious problems exist in the criminal justice system that must be fixed if our society is to continue using the death penalty."

This week's discovery has huge legal significance because there has previously been no clear-cut case in modern US history of a defendant being sentenced to death on the back of evidence which is demonstrably false.

It does not necessarily prove that Jones, who was 60 at the time of his death, was innocent of murder. But it does add weight his claim that he was waiting in a car outside the liquor store on the afternoon of November 14, 1989 when an accomplice, Kerry Daniel Dixon, walked in and shot Mr Hilzendager.

The men, both career criminals, planned to steal the till, which contained several hundred dollars in cash, from the off-licence at Point Blank, 80 miles east of Houston. Witnesses said they saw one man walk into the store to commit the crime while the other stayed behind to act as getaway driver.

Evidence

Without the hair from the scene, Jones would have received life imprisonment, since under Texas law it is impossible to secure a death penalty conviction without corroborating physical evidence that the suspect was directly responsible for a crime such as murder.

None of the witnesses were able to positively identify which of the two men had walked into the store and pulled the trigger.

A third accomplice, Timothy Jordan, who supplied the fatal weapon, testified that Jones had confessed to the killing, but later withdrew his evidence, saying he had embellished it to secure a lighter sentence.

For the original trial in 1990, analysis of the hair was carried out under a microscope, a technique now obsolete because it is thought to be unreliable.

By the time Jones was executed a decade later, DNA testing was relatively commonplace, but his attorneys were unable to convince any court in Texas to have the crucial hair reviewed.

In 2000, just before Jones was killed, Mr Bush declined a request to order a stay of execution.

The 'Texas Observer' magazine, which carried out that week's DNA test, claimed that state attorneys "failed to inform him that DNA evidence might exonerate Jones".

The former US president has declined to comment. (Independent News Service)

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