Did Texas execute an innocent man 10 years ago? We may be about to find out.See more from Dave Mann at The Texas Observer. The DA is being disingenuous. It's always worthwhile to test for innocence - even posthumously - because if the executed man wasn't the perpetrator, the real killer may still be out walking the streets. There's nothing to fear from removing all doubt and much to gain in terms of potentially identifying the real perpetrator, not to mention providing certainty to both the victim's family and the public whether Jones really committed the crime.
A state judge has granted a go-ahead for DNA testing on a strand of hair from the case of Claude Jones, who was executed in Texas in 2000 for allegedly shooting a liquor store clerk in (no joke) Point Blank, Texas.
The hair was collected from the store counter, and a forensic analyst testified at Jones' trial that it "matched" his head hair — a scientifically impossible finding. Based on this and the testimony of a snitch (who later recanted), Jones was convicted and sentenced to death.
The Innocence Project, together with the Texas Observer and two Texas-based innocence organizations, filed motions in court seeking to preserve the hair so testing could move forward. However, they've been opposed by San Jacinto County's district attorney, who fought to destroy the evidence, saying "once the defendant has been executed, I can do nothing more in the case." (Time Magazine ran a feature on the case at the end of May.)
Jones was the 152nd prisoner — and the last — who was executed during George W. Bush's tenure as Governor of Texas. A last-minute petition for clemency so DNA testing could be conducted was denied by his office. But thanks to this new ruling in support of a DNA test, ten years after Jones's death, we may learn soon if Bush allowed an innocent man to be executed.
That said, among death penalty abolitionists, identifying an actually innocent person who's been executed is frequently considered the "holy grail," a macabre enthusiasm which I find misplaced. For starters, schadenfreude is a dishonorable motivation. Moreover, all evidence suggests the public wouldn't change their views even if such a grave error is proven. Most assume it's likely to happen, indeed may already have happened, and accept it as part of the cost of doing business. What that fact says about the American public is open to debate, but that's the reality regarding public opinion on capital punishment.
Another note: Though it's impossible to handicap such things and frequently DNA testing disproves innocence claims, my gut tells me this one may have legs. That's because the facts follow a pattern you'll commonly see in DNA exonerations where two or more errors or misguided tactics combine to convict an innocent person. Aside from faulty eyewitness identification, which by itself is often enough to secure a conviction, frequently it takes not one but two pieces of bad evidence to convict somebody, particularly faulty forensics which are often used to corroborate instead of being the sole evidence which convicts. In this case, the two bits of potentially false evidence were an unreliable informant who later recanted (I say unreliable because we know the snitch lied at least once, we just don't know when) and comparative hair forensics based on pre-DNA methods that the National Academy of Sciences now says had no scientific basis.
If that really was all the evidence presented and a judge has granted DNA testing, the results may well exonerate Mr. Jones. And what then? It's not going to change anything for these guys. Or will it?