Attorneys in Mayer Brown’s Houston office have won a summary judgment for their clients the Innocence Project and the Texas Observer, ordering the San Jacinto County District Attorney to turn over for DNA testing evidence used to convict and execute Claude Jones ten years ago. Jones had been convicted for a murder based on sketchy eyewitness and accomplice testimony, later recanted. The only forensic evidence available to corroborate the accomplice testimony was a single hair fragment an inch long, with no root. At the time of trial, it was not possible to conduct a DNA test on hairs lacking roots. Instead, the state offered testimony as to a microscopic visual examination comparing the single hair with samples from Jones, the victim, another possible perpetrator and various investigators who had been at the crime scene. The state’s expert testified that such tests could not yield a positive identification as to the donor of the hair at issue, but nevertheless stated repeatedly that the sample “matched” that of the defendant. The prosecution emphasized that “match” in its closing argument to the jury as did the majority opinion in the Court of Criminal Appeals, over a vigorous dissent. Jones petitioned for a stay of execution when mitochondrial DNA testing later became available, but the courts denied it, the board of pardons denied clemency and the governor’s staff omitted any mention of the request for DNA testing in its memo to the governor recommending denial of the stay. The stay was denied and Jones was executed the same day.
Conducting the tests could confirm Jones’ guilt, implicate another shooter and exonerate Jones, or confirm that the hair was not relevant to Jones’ guilt or innocence, itself an important conclusion given the absence of any other evidence corroborating the alleged co-conspirator testimony, rendering it a verdict supported by legally insufficient evidence.
On behalf of the Innocence Project and the Texas Observer, the Firm argued that there is both a common law and first amendment right of access to evidence used in a criminal trial. The district attorney acknowledged in his deposition that he had an obligation to seek the truth even after an execution, that there was a public interest in knowing the truth and that no interest would be disserved by conducting the tests. He nevertheless opposed the test on grounds that no authority gave the Innocence Project or the Texas Observer standing to demand it. The court disagreed and ordered defendants to submit the hairs to testing.
The attorneys representing the Innocence Project and the Texas Observer in this matter is Partner Bill Knull of the Houston office, as well as former associate Kwaku Akowuah of the New York office.