DNA Could Have Saved the Last Man Executed by Bush
Landmark investigation disproves death penalty case for first time
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 was convicted in 1990 of murdering an off-license 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 14 November 1989 when
an accomplice, Kerry Daniel Dixon, walked in and shot Hilzendager.
The men, both career criminals, planned to steal the till, which contained
several hundred dollars in cash, from the off-license 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.
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 was 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 this
week's DNA test, claimed that state attorneys "failed to inform him
that DNA evidence might exonerate Jones".
The former US president, who is on the road this week publicizing his memoirs,
has declined to comment. Although he signed 151 execution orders - more than
any other governor - during his time in office, Bush has previously stated
his support for DNA testing as a means to confirm a suspect's guilt.
In the years after his execution, Jones's family tried repeatedly to get
access to the hair sample, but their requests to have it DNA tested were
blocked by the local district attorney, who attempted to have it destroyed.
It was only released after the Texas Observer resorted to filing a lawsuit
demanding access to the item.
That kind of obstruction is true to form in Texas, which has executed 464
people since the death penalty was re-introduced to the US more than three
decades ago, giving it one of the world's busiest death rows outside Saudi
Arabia and China.
Earlier this year, doubt was cast on the conviction of Cameron Todd
Willingham, who was was put to death in 2004 after being convicted of
starting a fire in 1991 that killed his three daughters. Several experts
have claimed that he was completely innocent and that prosecutors obscured
An official report into Willingham's case by the Texas Forensic Science
Commission will not be completed until next year. Its release was delayed by
the current Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who last October removed three
members of the panel that is writing the report and replaced them with
people thought to be more supportive of capital punishment.
Miscarriages Of Justice?
Cameron Todd Willingham
In February 2004, the unemployed car mechanic was given a lethal
Texas for the murder of his three young daughters in an arson attack
in 1991. He protested his innocence until his death. Expert fire
have since produced reports showing that none of the alleged signs of
cited at the trial stood up to scrutiny. A final report on the
case is due next year.
The only woman to die in the US state of Georgia's electric chair, Lena Baker
was a black maid executed in 1945 for shooting her white male employer. An
all-white jury sentenced Baker to death despite the 44-year-old's claims
that her boss had kept her as a slave, raped her and threatened to kill her.
In 2005, Georgia's Board of Pardons and Paroles found that Baker should have
been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and granted her a pardon.
The 19-year-old was hanged in 1952 for his part in the murder of Pc Sidney
Miles during a bungled break-in at a Surrey warehouse. Bentley's sister
campaigned to clear his name, claiming he had learning difficulties. In
1998, the Court of Appeal found that the original trial judge had been
biased against the defendants and that scientific evidence showed the police
officers who testified against Bentley had lied under oath.
Marinus van der Lubbe
Scapegoat for one of the defining moments of 20th-century history, the
24-year-old Dutch bricklayer was beheaded for setting fire to the Reichstag
in Germany in 1933. He was pardoned 75 years later. Hitler used the arson to
suspend civil liberties and establish a dictatorship. Much debate has
surrounded the subject of Van der Lubbe's guilt. Lawyers finally achieved a
symbolic pardon in 2008, citing legislation based on the idea that Nazi law "went
against the basic ideas of justice".
Kelly was hanged in 1950 after one of Liverpool's most famous murder trials.
Some 65,000 people were questioned after a cinema manager and his cashier
were shot in a botched robbery while an audience enjoyed a thriller. Kelly
was tried alongside Charles Connolly, who pleaded guilty to lesser charges
to save his own life, although both maintained that neither committed
murder. In 2003, appeal judges ruled that the evidence had been
circumstantial and Kelly's verdict had been "unsafe".