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-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 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-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.

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 publicising 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 crucial evidence.

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 injection in Texas for the murder of his three young daughters in an arson attack in 1991. He protested his innocence until his death. Expert fire investigators have since produced reports showing that none of the alleged signs of arson cited at the trial stood up to scrutiny. A final report on the Willingham case is due next year.

Lena Baker

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.

Derek Bentley

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".

George Kelly

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".

Enjoli Liston

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map