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Executing an Innocent Man

From the Texas Observer:

Claude Jones always claimed that he wasn’t the man who walked into an East Texas liquor store in 1989 and shot the owner. He professed his innocence right up until the moment he was strapped to a gurney in the Texas execution chamber and put to death on Dec. 7, 2000. His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene—a strand of hair—that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones.
But DNA tests completed this week at the request of the Observer and the New York-based Innocence Project show the hair didn’t belong to Jones after all. The day before his death in December 2000, Jones asked for a stay of execution so the strand of hair could be submitted for DNA testing. He was denied by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

And, of course, this isn't the only story like it. In the New Yorker last year, my friend and former colleague David Grann told the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sent to death in Texas for allegedly murdering his children by arson. Like Jones, Willingham maintained his innocence until the end. And, according to David's article, the primary basis for that conviction was a set of theories on arson that science has since debunked. Prosecutors stand by the conviction.

A special Texas commission was investigating the matter, to see whether Willingham was right. But, just days before it was to hear critical testimony on the forensic evidence, Governor Rick Perry dismissed the commission's chairman and two members. Here's what happened next, via the Houston Chronicle:

The new chair was John Bradley, a conservative district attorney. His first act was to cancel the planned discussion. He then appointed himself to a four-member committee to review the case in private. Earlier this month, he told the Associated Press that Willingham was a "guilty monster," echoing Perry's words to reporters a year ago that Willingham was "a monster … a heinous individual who murdered his kids."

Willingham's family has filed a lawsuit to clear his name. I don't know how it will turn out, any more than I can know for certain whether Willingham or Jones were guilty. But the idea that the state could execute men under such murky circumstances ought to give even the most committed death penalty advocates pause.