An omission in a memo given to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush may have led to the 2000 execution of an innocent man, according to an investigation by the Innocence Project, which helps exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates through DNA evidence.
The organization said today that Bush staffers never told the governor of death row inmate Claude Jones' request to run a DNA test on a strand of hair.
The hair, which has now been proven through DNA testing not to belong to Jones, was the only physical evidence linking Jones to the 1989 murder of Allen Hilzendager, a liquor store employee in San Jacinto County, Texas.
Jones, who was 60 at the time of his death, was executed for his supposed role in the crime in December 2000.
"I have no doubt that if President Bush had known about the request to do a DNA test of the hair he would have issued a 30-day stay in this case and Jones would not have been executed," said Barry Scheck, the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, in a written statement.
A spokesman for Bush did not respond to messages left by ABCNews.com for comment.
Jones was accused along with two co-defendants, Timothy Jordan and Kerry Dixon, of shooting Hilzendager. The only two eyewitnesses to the crime -- a father and his 14-year-old daughter -- were unable to identify any of the accused assailants, according to the Innocence Project.
The piece of hair, which became the lynchpin of the case, was found by investigators on the counter near Hilzendager's body. A chemist who had initially concluded that the sample was too small for testing later testified at Jones' trial that the "microscopic characteristics of the hair on the counter" did in fact "match" Jones' DNA.
Request For Further DNA Testing Never Given to Bush
While Jones was sentenced to death, co-defendant Jordan eventually pleaded to a lesser charge and received a 10-year sentence. Dixon was convicted of aggravated robbery in connection with the murder and is serving a life sentence.
In a last-minute appeal for a stay of execution sent to Bush's general counsel at the time, James DeLee, Jones' lawyer requested that the hair sample be re-examined and tested for DNA. But in a subsequent letter from Lee to Bush himself, the request for the DNA test was never mentioned.
ABCNews.com has obtained copies of both of these letters.
"Governor Bush has recently stated that he supports the use of DNA testing to 'erase any doubts' in death penalty cases," Jones' lawyer wrote in his petition.
The Innocence Project is pushing for states to enact stronger safeguards to prevent the omission of such crucial physical evidence, particularly in death penalty cases.
"The DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong," added Scheck. "This is yet another disturbing example of a miscarriage of justice in Texas capital murder prosecutions. Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life."
"It is unbelievable that the lawyers in the General Counsel's office failed to inform the governor that Jones was seeking DNA testing on evidence that was so pivotal to the case," said former Texas Governor and Attorney General Mark White in a statement released by the Innocence Project. "If the state is going to continue to use the death penalty, it must figure out a way to build safeguards in the system so that lapses like this don't happen again."
Paul Cates, the director of communication the Innocence Project, said that it is likely Bush would have stayed Jones' execution had he been aware of the circumstances. In fact, he'd done so before for another death row inmate just months prior.
"[President Bush] had done so just a few months earlier on a case that he'd worked on and said at the time that he thought DNA testing should be done when it could help shed light on guilt or innocence," said Cates.
Jones' lawyer wrote in his petition, "Governor Bush has recently stated that he supports the use of DNA testing to 'erase any doubts' in death penalty cases."
Jones' son Duane Jones, who only got to know his father during his time on death row, said in a statement, "My father never claimed to be a saint, but he always maintained that he didn't commit this murder."
I hope these results will serve as a wakeup call to everyone that serious problems exist in the criminal justice system that must be fixed if our society is to continue using the death penalty," said Duane Jones. "We must be careful that all aspects of our law enforcement and court systems are always driven by justice, truth and logic -- not vengeance, emotion or politics."