HOUSTON – The execution of a Texas man whose plea for DNA testing was ignored shows procedures and laws covering capital punishment need to be changed, a leading anti-death penalty lawyer said Friday.
Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck said the execution of convicted murderer Claude Jones 10 years ago took place only because then-Gov. George W. Bush wasn't told by his legal team that Jones' lawyer was seeking DNA testing on a piece of hair used to convict him.
"I have great hopes that when President Bush reviews this case he will acknowledge what I think is obvious here, and that is that he was blindsided, he was misled, and he would have granted that DNA test to Claude Jones and everything would have been different for Claude Jones."
Bush's office has declined to comment on the case.
Bush's former spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Friday that Bush would typically ask two questions in execution cases.
"Did the defendant have full access to the courts and was there any doubt about his or her innocence," said McClellan, who said he had no involvement in the Jones case.
Jones' execution was the 40th and last of the year 2000 in Texas — a record that still stands in the nation's busiest death penalty state. Earlier that year, Bush, who was running for president at the time, used his authority as governor to give another condemned inmate a 30-day reprieve for DNA testing. Those tests confirmed the evidence and the prisoner was executed.
Scheck said that earlier decision from Bush convinced him the governor also would have stopped Jones' punishment if his staff had accurately told him about the DNA request. Documents obtained by attorneys working for the Innocence Project showed Bush was told Jones' guilt "is not in doubt" and that the prisoner had "full and fair access to judicial review of his case."
"We know that's not true," Scheck said.
The piece of hair was the only physical evidence prosecutors used to tie Jones to a fatal shooting during the robbery of an East Texas liquor store in November 1989. Because the DNA test showed the hair did not come from Jones, the evidence used to convict him was insufficient under Texas law, Scheck said.
"If that DNA test had been performed, there would have been plenty of doubt about guilt, and this conviction would have been reversed and this execution wouldn't have taken place," he said.
Scheck said while some may say this case "isn't the holy grail" to show Jones definitely was innocent, "I think that in and of itself is pretty significant, and only a cynical view would say this is not important, this doesn't matter."
He said courts should allow for examination of forensic evidence now blocked by deadlines. Courts now can say "we're not even going to look at this" and reject filings as abuse of the writ process, he said.
"You need to change writ procedures so courts will consider new changes in scientific evidence in reviewing cases," Scheck said.
He also said he thinks Texas crime labs need to improve and that the state's relatively new Forensic Science Commission, which reviews misconduct and negligence by forensic investigators, needs to ignore "death penalty politics."
Scheck was joined at a Houston news conference Friday by former Texas Gov. Mark White, who oversaw the execution of 19 inmates during his four-year tenure ending in January 1987. He also was Texas attorney general when the state did its first lethal injection in December 1982.
White also said it is critical for the courts and executive branch of government to change procedures when reviewing death penalty matters.
"This is exactly the horror story that every governor, I think, has in this country: that something will be left out in the information he's receiving to help make him make a decision concerning this most important matter a governor determines," White said.
In the nearly 35 years since capital punishment was reinstated in the U.S., there has never been a case in which someone definitively was proven innocent after being executed.
Jones was condemned for the slaying of the liquor store's owner, Allen Hilzendager, who was shot three times outside the small town of Point Blank, about 70 miles north of Houston.
During his trial, a forensic expert testified the hair in evidence could have come from Jones but not from an accomplice or the store owner. No DNA test was performed for the trial.
Bill Burnett, the San Jacinto County district attorney who prosecuted Jones, died earlier this year, but always insisted he had the right man on death row.
"I think he's guilty," Burnett told The Associated Press in 2007 when questions about DNA testing in the case resurfaced.
The Innocence Project had "an agenda," he said. "They want a lot of press. From our standpoint, we're simply doing our job trying to follow the law."
Jones' criminal record dated back to 1959. While serving a 21-year prison sentence in Kansas, he poured a flammable liquid on his cellmate and set him on fire, killing him. Three days after the Texas shooting, he was identified as the robber of a suburban Houston bank. He was arrested nearly three weeks later in Fort Myers, Fla., where he was charged with robbery and bank robbery there.
From the death chamber gurney, he did not acknowledge guilt but told relatives of the liquor store owner he was sorry for their loss.
Jones' son, Duane, said Friday that prosecutors had ignored their responsibilities, appellate courts had "dropped the ball in the search for truth," and Bush's staff showed gross incompetence.
"Everybody needs to keep in mind the whole objective of our legal system is that it be administered with justice and logic in mind and not vengeance and emotion or politics," he said.