Thursday, November 11, 2010

Update On The Surprising Case of The Despicable Claude Jones

Previously, I described The Surprising Case of The Despicable Claude Jones. The case hinged in large part on the State's identification of a 1" hair segment as belonging to Despicable Claude. The mitochondrial DNA from that 1" hair segment has now been tested, the results are in, and [insert drum roll here] the hair segment did not come from the now executed Claude Jones. It came from the store owner who was murdered.

Imagine that. It seems as if the State's expert was absolutely confident  during his trial testimony that the hair segment did not belong to the store owner. Interesting.

Well, Texas still has its accomplice testimony, except for the troublesome issue that accomplice recanted his testimony and affirmed he only said what the State wanted him to say because they put the screws to him.

Okay so maybe the accomplice testimony wasn't that hot. But Texas still has their two eyewitnesses who never actually claimed they saw Despicable Claude

So Texas will continue to profess their absolute confidence that Claude Jones was the shooter no matter how much of their evidence falls apart. If they get tired of professing their absolute conficence in their conviction, they can fall back on the implicit suggestion that Claude Howared Jones was a despicable person and only got what he deserved anyway. What they can't do any longer is claim that Despicable Claude really got a fair trial before they strapped him down and shot him full of lethal chemicals.

Allow me to review the case quickly, assuming I'm even possible of a quick review. In November 1989, some despicable person (not necessarily Despicable Claude) entered Zell's liquor store in Point Blank, Texas. (Only Texas would have a city named Point Blank.) That person asked the owner, Allen Hilzendager, to retrieve a bottle for him. As Hilzendager turned to get the bottle, the shooter shot Hilzenager three times with a .357 Magnum revolver. The shooter took $900 from the cash register and fled in a getaway vehicle waiting outside.

Leaon and Wendy Goodson were across the street that night. They could not identify the shooter. The were confident however, that the man was of medium height, middle age, had a pot belly, and was wearing a gray sweatshirt.

Texas then had Terry Hardin testify that, while she was not at the crime scene that night, she knew Claude Jones, and the description kinda, sorta fit him. Hardin also testified that Jones had been wearing a gray sweatshirt that day. Hardin then conceded the description could also describe The Despicable Danny Dixon, the other man sentenced for the crime. But the Goodsons must have seen Despicable Claude and not Despicable Dan because Despicable Dan had only a small pot belly while Despicable Claude had a large pot belly. (Such is the substance of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in Texas.)

Enter Stephen Robertson, a forensics examiner employed by the Texas Department of Public Safety. He testified that a 1" hair segment found at the scene was consistent with Despicable Claude but absolutely inconsistent with the victim, Despicable Dan, or any of the other thirteen people who might have been in the store that day. He then explained to the jury what that all meant.
[W]e take a hair that we want -- that we’re worried about and we compare that hair to this person's hair. If that hair falls within the range of characteristics that the person has, then that could be the person's hair or it could be another person that has similar hair characteristics. Technology has not advanced where we can tell you this hair came from that person. Can't do that. We can tell you that this hair matches the person in all characteristics and could be his. ... [I]t’s impossible to put a percentage or a statistical study on these variations because each hair in your head varies a little bit. How do you put a number on something that varies like that? . . . So I can’t tell you, you know, this hair occurs in 10 percent of the population. Nobody can tell you something like that.
So the hair sample was consistent with Despicable Claude, and not with the store owner, and not with anyone else who had been in the store that day. Couple that with the rock solid eyewitness testimony and you've got yourself proof beyond all doubt.

Unfortunately, with the DNA results now in, we know for sure what the jury should have suspected from the beginning. Forensic Examiner Stephen Robertson was blowing forensic smoke up their backsides. But that's okay because Claude Howard Jones was in fact a despicable person who, among other despicable things, killed another inmate by dousing him with lighter fluid and setting him on fire.

Despicable Dan, by comparison, merely shot a young girl between the eyes and buried her in a cemetary. So let's talk a moment about Despicable Dan. He was also convicted of the crime. His pickup truck, or a pickup truck kinda like his pickup truck, was seen by one witness outside the liquor store that night. In fact, it was the pickup truck that led police to Despicable Dan. Dan refused to cooperate and got 60 years.

We now get to the person who actually admitted to being involved in the killing, Timothy Mark Jordan. One reason we might believe Jordan is that it was his .357 revolver that fired the bullets that killed liquor store clerk Allen Hilzendager. Jordan is facing the needle and finds that unnerving. But he's a pro and he knows how the game works. He knows that if he gives the Texas police someone else's head on a platter, they'll take his death penalty off the table, theyl'll charge him with a lesser crime, they'll give him reduced time, and they'll even provide punch and cookies.

But Jordan doesn't want to sell out Despicable Dan, because they're buds. Instead, he sells out Despicable Claude, who is just some run of the mill slup and not at all a good bud like Dan. So he tells the police that Despicable Claude confessed to him that he committed the robbery and killed the clerk, and he so testified during Claude's trial.

For his perfidy, Texas charges Jordan with capital murder and a separate robbery in another county, but  they allow him to plea both charges down to a 10-year sentence for a lesser offense.

Three years after Claude was executed, however, Jordon recanted. He explained that it was Dixon who confessed to the killing, not Jones.

To send a message to all those purchased witnesses who might change their story later, Texas charged, tried, and convicted Jordan of aggravated perjury for telling differing stories to grand and trial jurors.

So the State of Texas has neither hair evidence nor accomplice testimony to put Claude Howard Jones at the crime scene, much less to put the gun in his hand. All they have is a bizarre, compound, pass-the-baton eyewitness identification that hinges on whether Despicable Dan's pot belly was substantially smaller than Despicable Dan's.

Holy crap!

I said in my previous post that if the hair sample turned out to belong to someone other than  Despicable Claude, then I was going to revise my Actual Innocence Scorecard and give him an actual innocence score of 100.  I recant that claim. The revised scorecard is attached. I elevated his score from 52 to 82.

For a more coherent timeline of events, see the timeline prepared by the Innocence Project.

Normally I spend at least a week working on a case, on and off, before I post on it. That's good since it allows me time to consider and weigh all the evidence. Last night, I posted the update regarding Claude Howard Jones as soon as I realized the DNA testing returned negative for Jones. I guess I was more concerned about the timeliness of my post than the thoroughness.

I did not, for example, account at all for some of the information provided in the Innocence Project timeline, the very timeline I linked to in the post. More specifically, I did not adjust my scoring to account for new information (at least new to me) that on the day of the shooting Claude Jones had been with Danny Dixon, Timothy Jordan, AND Terry Hardin. I hadn't uncovered that tidbit in my previous research, though I should have captured part of it earlier from the Attorney General's Media Advisory.

I believe I also gave insufficient weight to the seemingly well-established fact that Jones, Dixon, and Jordan participated in other robberies together.

Finally, I noticed in a new comment to my original post on Jones that Jordan's recantation consisted of saying that Dixon told him Jones confessed to him, rather than Jones confessing directly to Jordan That may or may not be true. If anyone can source Jordans' recantation so we can all read it directly, that would be great.

After considering and weighing everything I know now, here's what I believe happened that day.

Claude Howard Jones met with Danny Dixon, Timothy Jordan, and Terry Hardin (Jordan's girlfriend) at the home of Jordan's father. At least two of them decided to perform a robbery. Using Timothy Jordan's .357 revolver, which Hardin had purchased for him as a gift, and Danny Dixon's pickup, at least two of them robbed the liquor store in Point Blank, Texas, and one of them shot and killed Allen Hilzendager.

A witness saw the pickup truck, and that allowed police to arrest Dixon and Jordan. They did not initially arrest Jones. Dixon refused to cooperate but Jordan worked a deal with the cops and the DA. He claimed he only planned the robbery and provided the gun, but that Dixon and Jones were the two who actually committed the robbery. Not only that, Jones confessed to him that he did the shooting.

The state of Texas had a problem. The law does not allow a conviction based  solely on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. Jordan's story would have to be corroborated with something. The eyewitness testimony was troublesome, since neither of the eyewitnesses could actually identify Jones. The State could and did use Terry Hardin to buttress the eyewitness testimony, but she might have also fallen into the accomplice category. (I'm guessing she also struck a deal with the police.)

The State did, however, have that tiny 1" hair segment, and darned if the forensic lab didn't identify that segment as being consistent with Jones but nobody else. It was, as we now know, a bunch of crap, but it was the critical piece necessary to corroborate their purchased testimony.

Dixon, who refused to cooperate, got 60 years. Jones, who was fingered by Jordan and  Jordan's girlfriend Terry Hardin, got the needle. Jordan got off with ten years for that murder and another robbery combined. Hardin, best I can tell, walked.

When Jordan later recanted, Texas convicted him of aggravated perjury, not because they object to perjury (since they purchase perjured testimony by the crate) but because he made them look bad. They  also wanted to send a message to anyone who might think about recanting in the future. Texas was certainly not bothered that they might have needled the wrong man.

So this case completely and totally sucks. For the pro-death penalty folks who will never concede Texas might have made a mistake, they simply look foolish when they claim to be 100% confident that Jones was the shooter or driver. They simply can't know.  For the anti-death penalty folks who hope to find solid proof of an innocent person wrongfully convicted, they may not want to hitch their horse to this wagon.

I'm more comfortable scoring this case (and all such cases) as uncertain, as probabilities rather than certainties. I'm more comfortable changing my scoring as appropriate when new evidence comes my way. I fault myself in this case for researching too poorly and posting too quickly. I have revised my scorecard for a second time, and include it to the right. Based on everything I think I know now, I score Claude Howard Jones at 48.

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