Watch at Houston Chronicle.
For over two decades, the hair was stored in a plastic evidence bag in the courthouse in Coldspring, Texas, cataloged as belonging to Claude Jones, who was convicted of murder in 1990 and executed 10 years later. Now, it can be relabeled: a court-ordered DNA test found Thursday that the hair actually belonged to the murder victim Allen Hilzendager. The result casts significant doubt on the validity of Jones' conviction and his execution.
That single 1-in. (2.5 cm) strand of hair was the key to Jones' original conviction. A truck carrying Jones and Danny Dixon did pull up in front of Hilzendager's liquor store that night. One man got out, went inside and gunned Hilzendager down, according to two eyewitnesses across the highway (neither could see the murderer's face). Both Jones and Dixon were certainly capable of the crime — both were on parole after serving time for murder. But there was little other firm evidence of which one had done it. Dixon accused Jones, and Jones accused Dixon. The prosecution's star witness against Jones was a friend of Dixon's who later said that prosecutors had coerced him into testifying.
And from the beginning, the evidence was handled questionably. The hair expert at the Texas crime lab originally thought the small sample was "unsuitable for comparison" using the microscopy technology available at the time, but eventually changed his mind and decided to test it after all. Using that outdated technology — which essentially has two hairs examined side by side under a microscope — the expert then determined that the hair belonged to Jones and not Dixon.
That dubious determination went on to haunt all of Jones' failed appeals as well. Time and again, lawyers and judges pointed to the physical evidence against Jones as a damning factor.
Except, in the end, it wasn't. The fact that the hair was actually Hilzendager's doesn't mean that Jones was necessarily innocent, but it does mean that the jury convicted him — and did so quickly — based largely on false evidence. "What's crucial to understand is that the hair was critical evidence in the case," says Barry Scheck, whose Innocence Project, along with the Texas Observer, led the lawsuit demanding that the hair be subjected to DNA testing. "I have no doubt the conviction would've been reversed with these results."
Scheck points out the most poignant aspect of the story: Jones came very close to having a chance for that reversal just before he was executed. At the time, then Governor George W. Bush was on record stating that he would delay executions if there were relevant new DNA tests that could be performed. Jones' case seemed to fit that bill — mitochondrial DNA testing was not available during his trial but was in wide use before his final appeals in 2000. Jones' attorney at the time warned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that without Bush's intervention, "the state of Texas runs the risk of executing a man despite the availability of modern technology that might exonerate him."
The four-page memo that Bush received from his legal advisers on Dec. 7, 2000, however, made no mention of a possible new DNA test. It ended with the assertion that Jones "has had full and fair access to judicial review of his case." Bush denied clemency, and Jones was executed that evening.
"What I'm really hoping is that when President Bush gets an opportunity to look at this," says Scheck, "that he would acknowledge that he was blindsided and that an error was made."
The new DNA results come during a rough patch for capital punishment in Texas. After 18 years in prison — 12 of those on death row — Anthony Graves was exonerated and walked free in October based on the opinion of a special independent prosecutor who found in favor of a 2006 reversal (stemming from a lack of evidence) of his conviction. That case, in which Graves was convicted of slaughtering a family he didn't know based on the testimony of informants and co-defendants, had one striking similarity with the Jones case: the original prosecutors fought fiercely against any suggestions that the convictions might be invalid. As doubts over the evidence that had convicted Graves swirled in 2009, prosecutor Charles Sebesta took out full-page ads in local papers calling Graves "cold-blooded."
In Jones' case, prosecutor Bill Burnett fought hard to destroy the hair before it could be tested, and he took his fight all the way to his grave. The pastor at his funeral in June assailed TIME's coverage of the Jones case, in which I had argued in favor of testing, and lauded Burnett for being someone who "took a stand against some powerful people."
(Read TIME's coverage of the case.)
After the evidence findings were revealed Thursday, Hilzendager's brother Joe told the Associated Press that he still thinks Jones was the shooter, staying true to what he had told me in his living room almost a year ago, as he argued against testing the hair: "There's no doubt they executed the right person."
But Jones' son Duane has always believed his father was wrongfully convicted. He says the results aren't a relief and that it's just "disappointing" to see the missed opportunities for justice.
"It saddens me because you know they spend all the taxpayers' money fighting DNA tests," he says. "If you're so confident in your convictions, do the testing. You might find out something new."