Earlier this week, State District Judge Paul Murphy granted a motion from The Innocence Project and the Texas Observer and ordered local prosecutors to turn over a one-inch strand of hair that was collected over 21 years ago at a crime scene in San Jacinto County. That scene involved the murder of liquor store owner Allen Hilzendager, a crime for which Claude Jones was executed by the State of Texas on December 7, 2000. (Interestingly, December 7 is the date on which executions resumed in Texas in 1982. Jones’ execution also was the final death penalty case that George W. Bush presided over as Governor of Texas.)
“If DNA evidence exonerates Jones, it would mark the first time an innocent person was executed for a crime that DNA tests would later prove they didn’t commit. DNA tests have freed nearly 20 death row inmates in the United States before they were executed. Innocence attorneys and reporters have also uncovered quite a few troubling cases in which states executed inmates who were likely innocent. That includes the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham-the North Texas man put to death for starting the fire that killed his three children and who forensic experts say was convicted on flawed evidence.”
“In fall 1989, Jones, who had recently been released on parole, was hanging out with two other men, Kerry Dixon and Timothy Jordan.
On Nov. 14, 1989, witnesses said that two men pulled into a liquor store in the small town of Point Blank in rural San Jacinto County, about 80 miles northeast of Houston. The description of the vehicle matched Dixon’s pickup truck. One man went inside and shot the owner, Allen Hilzendager, three times.
After Judge Murphy’s recent ruling, we’re one step closer to finding out.”
Witnesses who were standing across the road couldn’t positively identify the killer.
Dixon and Jordan later said that Jones was the shooter. Both men were spared the death penalty for their testimony against Jones.
Jones claimed that he never entered the store.
Beyond fuzzy eyewitness accounts, and the questionable testimony of Dixon and Jordan (who later recanted his testimony), the only reliable evidence that linked Jones to the murder was a strand of hair found on the liquor store counter.
At Jones’ 1990 trial, a forensic expert testified that the hair appeared to come from Jones. But the technology didn’t exist at the time to determine if the hair matched Jones’ DNA.
Advanced DNA testing techniques could now show if the hair was Jones’-and confirm his guilt. Or it could match Dixon, proving that he was the gunman who entered the store. That would exonerate Jones. Or tests could reveal the hair came from a third person and leave Jones’ guilt unknown.