Claude Jones had always claimed that he was innocent of the 1989 murder of an East Texas liquor store owner. But DNA testing wasn’t available in time to save his life.
Not until a decade after Jones was executed did scientists using DNA analysis confirm that a hair found at the crime scene did not belong to Jones. It was the murder victim’s.
Across the nation, more than 70 exonerations have involved the improper use of hair sampling — a practice, now considered “junk science,” in which a strand of hair is examined under a miscroscope to identify the people who were at a crime scene.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission wants to determine whether anyone has been wrongly imprisoned by identifying older criminal cases in which microscopic hair fibers were used to convict people of rape, murder, robbery and lesser crimes. The goal is to use DNA to find out whether any other miscarriages of justice have occurred.
“We have a moral responsibility to find out,” said Arthur J. Eisenberg, a forensic science commissioner who is a DNA expert and a co-director of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth.
The state’s top forensic watchdog agency is surveying crime labs large and small to learn the methods used to conduct hair analysis that did not involve verification with DNA. The Forensic Science Commission’s review is part of a national effort by the FBI and the Justice Department to clear up any false convictions due to improper hair comparisons.
The commission hopes that labs will self-report examples of miscroscopic hair analysis and dig up old reports, transcripts and testimony.See a 2010 story from Dave Mann at the Texas Observer for more background on the Jones case. According to Mann, "His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene—a strand of hair—that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones."
Long-time readers will recall how the commission's focus on the Todd Willingham case caused the Governor to intervene to stop the commission's review of old arson convictions. Rick Perry appointed since-ousted Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley to chair the FSC. Bradley immediately halted the arson inquiry, claiming it amounted to an end-run by death-penalty abolitionists. The episode delayed and nearly ended the arson review, which only resumed in earnest after the Texas Senate refused to confirm Bradley's appointment.
Really, though, the commission's inquiry into flawed arson science wasn't death-penalty specific and neither is the review of faulty hair analysis. Grits becomes frustrated that the media and some advocates prefer to frame every criminal justice issue in terms of the death penalty when the vast majority of convictions based on flawed forensics aren't capital cases. Mr. Jones' case may have been a travesty, but nothing the FSC does now will benefit him. The focus should be on boosting the integrity of the justice system in all cases, not rehashing tired culture war memes that distract from goals they can actually accomplish.