It’s hard to defend George W. Bush this week, given his new memoir. But I feel I must.
I’ve slowly moved to a neutral position on the death penalty. I’m not against it but I think applying it should require an extreme burden of proof. This is, to me, a conservative view. I’m simply reluctant to trust the government with the power of life and death. And that reluctance grows stronger every time a story like this surfaces:
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.
A decade later, the results of DNA testing not only undermine the evidence that convicted Jones, but raise the possibility that Texas executed an innocent man. The DNA tests—conducted by Mitotyping Technologies, a private lab in State College, Pa., and first reported by the Observer on Thursday—show the hair belonged to the victim of the shooting, Allen Hilzendager, the 44-year-old owner of the liquor store.
Because the DNA testing doesn’t implicate another shooter, the results don’t prove Jones’ innocence. But the hair was the only piece of evidence that placed Jones at the crime scene. So while the results don’t exonerate him, they raise serious doubts about his guilt
A lot of people are bashing Bush over this, since the man was executed while Bush was governor. This is unfair. First, as we noted about a million times during the 2000 election, the governor of Texas does not have the power to stop executions, merely delay them by thirty days. More important, the Bush people were never notified that a DNA test had been requested. If they had, Bush would almost certainlyhave delayed the execution. He did this in case of Ricky McGinn, a man who raped and beat to death his 12-year-old step-daughter but requested a DNA test before execution. In that case, of course, the DNA proved the fucker’s guilt and he was executed.
So, yes, this story can be used to criticize the death penalty and especially the death penalty in Texas, where a staggering fraction of the defense attorneys in capital cases are incompetent. But people using this as another opportunity for Bush-bashing need to get a grip. This wasn’t his fault.