Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Surprising Case of The Despicable Claude Jones

While making my way around the internet, I noticed a post on Steve Weinberg's blog about efforts to prove that Texas executed an innocent man, specifically Claude Jones.

Now, I've looked into, at least briefly, each of the 450+ Texas executions in the "modern era", and I allowed 60+ of those through my coarse filter for more thorough analysis, but I didn't recall anyone by the name of Claude Jones. So I opened my database, did a quick search, and sure enough: Claude Howard Jones, #239, executed 8 December 2000.

I looked at the score I gave him during my coarse screening. On a scale of 0 to 10, I gave him a zero.

I re-read the summary by the Texas Execution Information Center, and didn't see anything that would cause me to score it other than zero. I was therefore interested to learn how others now intend to prove Claude Jones innocent, though executed. Allow me to first excerpt the case from the Texas Execution Information Center.
In November 1989, Jones entered Zell's liquor store in Point Blank and asked the owner, Allen Hilzendager, to retrieve a bottle for him. As Hilzendager turned to get the bottle, Jones shot him three times with a .357 Magnum revolver. Jones took $900 from the cash register and fled in a getaway vehicle waiting outside. Waiting in the car were Jones' two accomplices, Kerry Daniel Dixon Jr. and Timothy Mark Jordan.
Three days later, the trio robbed a bank in Humble, Texas, obtaining $14,000 in loot. ... About three weeks after the liquor store robbery, Jones was arrested in Florida for bank robbery.
Jones ... had eleven prior convictions in Texas for crimes including murder, armed robbery, assault, and burglary. ... In 1976, he was convicted of murder, robbery, and assault in Kansas and received a life sentence. While in Kansas prison, Jones killed another inmate. He was paroled in 1984.
Kerry Dixon also had a lengthy prior record that included murder and two prison terms.
The evidence at Jones' trial was conclusive. A number of witnesses placed Jones at the scene of the crime, including Leon Goodson, who heard the shots and watched Jones leave the liquor store. A strand of Jones' hair was found at the murder scene. Also, Timothy Jordan testified against his partners in crime.
Jones was convicted of capital murder and received the death sentence. Dixon was convicted of murder and received a 60-year prison term. Jordan received a 10-year prison term.

I should add a little factoid about the murder Claude Jones committed while in Kansas prison. He doused an inmate with lighter fluid and, in the words of his own defense attorney, "torched him."

I'll be shedding no tears for Claude Howard Jones. Now on to the case for his actual innocence.  Here's what I've learned.

No witnesses actually "placed Jones at the scene of the crime." Leaon and Wendy Goodson testified only that they saw a man enter the store who appeared to be like Claude Jones. Given that it was night time, and given they were on the other side of the highway, they could  not be sure. They were sure, however, that the man was of medium height, middle age, had a pot belly, and was wearing a gray sweatshirt.

Witness Terry Hardin testified that he knew Claude Jones, and the description fit him. Hardin also testified that Jones had been wearing a gray sweatshirt that day. Hardin then conceded the description could also describe Danny Dixon, the other man sentenced for the crime.

So much for the eyewitness identification. Still, there was the testimony of Timothy Jordan.

Timothy Jordan testified that Claude Jones confessed to having committed the robbery and having killed the clerk. There are some difficulties with Jordan's testimony, however. First, the .357 revolver used in the killing belonged to Jordan, not Jones. Second, Jordon was paid for his testimony. (That's not what the prosecution calls it, of course.) Because Timothy Jordon helped Texas nail Claude Jones, Jordan had a separate murder charge dropped, and was sentenced to just 10 years for the robbery during which Jordan murdered that other person.

And that's not quite all. Jordan later recanted his testimony. In a 2004 affidavit, he stated that everything he reported at trial about robbery and killing he learned not from Claude Jones, but from Danny Dixon, the so called getaway driver. "I took a deal because I was scared, and I testified as to what they told me to say."

So much for Timothy Jordan's testimony. But still, there was the matching hair.  Except ...

It turns out the hair was a mere 1" segment found near the cash register. The Texas crime lab initially found it so small as to be unsuitable for comparison. They later changed their mind and testified that it microscopically matched Claude Jones, but did not match any of the other 15 people that they knew had been in the store. 

So the case ends up resting entirely on that 1" hair segment. Given that microscopic hair matching is notoriously unreliable, the state is not left with much, other than a successful execution. Someone noticed the tenuous nature of this seemingly unquestionable execution, and decided to conduct mitochondrial DNA testing on the hair sample. The county of San Jacinto refuses to allow testing of the hair, and indeed wants to destroy it. (Sound familiar?)  So law suits follow, terms such as "writ of mandamus" fly hither and yon, and before too long the court may rule on whether the hair must be turned over for testing, or can be destroyed.

I have generated an Actual Innocence Scorecard for Claude Jones. Based on all the information I now have at hand, I score him at 52. If the hair is allowed to be tested, and the hair matches Danny Dixon, as many people suspect it will, then I will incorporate that information into the scorecard, and Claude Jones' Actual Innocence Score will convert to 100. Texas will have been proven to have executed an innocent man.

Suddenly, the death penalty walls are closing in around Rick Perry. He must neuter the commission set up to investigate the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, he must navigate the tricky waters of Henry Watkins Skinner, and he must pray that a 1" hair segment is never tested, or is proven to belong to the possibly-innocent, but certainly dead Claude Jones.

Be aware that I have updated this story in Update on The Surprising Case of the Despicable Claude Jones.