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Claude Howard Jones - Texas Execution - December 7, 2000
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Thread: Claude Howard Jones - Texas Execution - December 7, 2000

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    Claude Howard Jones - Texas Execution - December 7, 2000




    Claude Jones in family snapshots taken at Texas' death row visitors' room the day before he was was executed.


    Facts of Crime: In November 1989, Jones entered Zell's liquor store in Point Blank and asked the owner, Allen Hilzendager, to retrieve a bottle for him. As Hilzendager turned to get the bottle, Jones shot him three times with a .357 Magnum revolver. Jones took $900 from the cash register and fled in a getaway vehicle waiting outside. Waiting in the car were Jones' two accomplices, Kerry Daniel Dixon, Jr. and Timothy Mark Jordan, in the middle of a multi-state crime pree that ended when Jones was arrested in Florida for bank robbery. Dixon received a 60-year sentence, Jordan a 10-year sentence. Jones had spent much of this adult life in prison following numerous convictions in Texas and Kansas. While in a Kansas prison serving a life sentence for murder, he killed another inmate. He served a total of eight years on his life sentence.

    Victim: Allen Hilzendager

    Time of Death: 6:42 p.m.

    Manner of execution: Lethal Injection

    Last Meal: eight soft fried eggs, bacon, sausage, one T-bone steak (well-done), six slices of buttered toast with strawberry jelly, and a pitcher of cold milk

    Final Statement: Jones apologized to the victim's family and expressed love to his own family.

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    Texas Attorney General

    MEDIA ADVISORY - Claude Howard Jones Scheduled To Be Executed

    AUSTIN - Texas Attorney General John Cornyn offers the following information on Claude Howard Jones who is scheduled to be executed after 6 p.m., Thursday, December 7th.

    Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the November 1989 murder of Allen Hilzendager, the owner of a liquor store in Point Blank, Texas.

    FACTS OF THE CRIME

    On November 14, 1989, Jones and two other men, Kerry Dixon and Mark Jordan, gathered at the home of Jordan's father. Between 4 and 4:30 in the afternoon, Jones and Dixon left and drove to Zell's liquor store where Allen Hilzaendager was. Before they left, Jordan gave the men his Taurus .357 magnum revolver, which had been purchased by Jordan's girlfriend, Terry Hardin. Jordan stayed behind at the mobile home.

    That same day, Leon Goodson and his 14-year-old daughter Wendy were busy working on their family vehicle at a friend's house located across the highway from Zell's liquor store. While assisting her father, Wendy saw a pickup truck pull into the front of the liquor store. The passenger, who was wearing a light-colored shirt with long sleeves and had a "pot" belly, got out of the truck and greeted Hilzendager. Hilzendager placed his arm around the man and they went into the store. The driver of the truck then turned the truck around on a nearby road, turned his lights off, and pulled up beside the store. Through a window in the front of the store, Wendy could see Hilzendager walk around the side of the counter. Two minutes later, Wendy heard two gun shots in rapid succession, and after a short pause, she heard another. She then asked her father, "Do you think they shot him?" Mr. Goodson, who was on the ground fixing the car at the time, heard the three bangs, but dismissed them thinking that Hilzendager might be banging on some metal doors.

    After hearing his daughter's words, however, Mr. Goodson stopped working on the car, stood up, and looked across the street. He and his daughter observed the man walk from the front of the counter to behind the counter, then out from behind the counter again. The door to the store was then pulled open and the man came out walking very briskly. According to Mr. Goodson, the man appeared to be a white male, in his forties, approximately 5 feet, 10 inches tall, 200 to 230 pounds in weight, wearing a tight fitting gray jogging shirt and had a "beer belly." The man got into the passenger side of the vehicle, and the vehicle was driven off toward Oakhurst at a high rate of speed.

    Several minutes later, after finishing the repairs, the Goodsons drove across the street to check on Hilzendager. After calling for Hilzendager, Goodson stepped up toward the counter and, through the storeroom door, saw the lower part of Hilzendager's torso and legs lying in a pool of blood. Goodson immediately left the store, got into his car, and went back to his neighbor's house to call the ambulance and police. Goodson then returned to the store and checked to see if Hilzendager was breathing. After determining that Hilzendager was not alive, he waited for the authorities to arrive at the scene.

    Law enforcement officials found the body of Allen Hilzendager lying on the floor in the doorway of the storeroom. He had received three gunshot wounds. Hilzendager received wounds to his right shoulder area under the collar bone, to his right lower abdomen, and to his back. A crime scene expert believed that the first shot was the one to his upper left back, which resulted in a severed aortic artery and a punctured lung. The second shot, which was fired between 18 to 24 inches from the victim, was made as the victim held up his hands. The third shot struck Hilzendager in the side as he lay on the floor.

    Hilzendager's sister, who occasionally worked at the liquor store, estimated that $900 was stolen from the cash register in the store. However, approximately $6,000 was left in the store in a bag pushed up under the counter near the floor. Another $1,000 was left in a bank bag under the cash register. After the murder, Jones told friends of his that he had killed Hilzendager because he was gay.

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    Claude Jones, 60, was executed by lethal injection on 7 December in Huntsville, Texas for the murder of a liquor store owner. In November 1989, Jones entered Zell's liquor store in Point Blank and asked the owner, Allen Hilzendager, to retrieve a bottle for him. As Hilzendager turned to get the bottle, Jones shot him three times with a .357 Magnum revolver. Jones took $900 from the cash register and fled in a getaway vehicle waiting outside. Waiting in the car were Jones' two accomplices, Kerry Daniel Dixon Jr. and Timothy Mark Jordan.

    Three days later, the trio robbed a bank in Humble, Texas, obtaining $14,000 in loot. They then went on a weekend trip to Las Vegas. About three weeks after the liquor store robbery, Jones was arrested in Florida for bank robbery.

    Jones, who also used the aliases Carl Roy Davis, Butch Jones, and Douglas Ray Starke, had eleven prior convictions in Texas for crimes including murder, armed robbery, assault, and burglary. He served 6 years of a 9-year prison sentence from 1959 to 1963 and three years of a 5-year sentence from 1963 to 1965. In 1976, he was convicted of murder, robbery, and assault in Kansas and received a life sentence. While in Kansas prison, Jones killed another inmate. He was paroled in 1984.

    Kerry Dixon also had a lengthy prior record that included murder and two prison terms.

    The evidence at Jones' trial was conclusive. A number of witnesses placed Jones at the scene of the crime, including Leon Goodson, who heard the shots and watched Jones leave the liquor store. A strand of Jones' hair was found at the murder scene. Also, Timothy Jordan testified against his partners in crime. Jones was convicted of capital murder and received the death sentence. Dixon was convicted of murder and received a 60-year prison term. Jordan received a 10-year prison term.

    Jones' execution was delayed by about a half an hour because prison staff were unable to find suitable veins in his hands and arms. Executions are usually performed with an IV in each arm. In Jones' case, only one IV was used, and it was inserted in his left thigh. In his brief final statement, Jones apologized to the victim's family and expressed love to his own family. He was pronounced dead at 6:42 p.m.

    (Clark County Prosecutor and Texas Execution Information Center)

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    September 10, 2007

    Final execution case with Bush as Texas governor under scrutiny

    HOUSTON: A Texas judge on Monday sided with an anti-death penalty group seeking to find out whether an inmate was wrongly executed, ruling that officials must keep a 1-inch (2.5-centimeter)-long piece of hair that was a key piece of evidence in the man's murder trial almost two decades ago.

    The Innocence Project wants to know whether Claude Jones was wrongly executed in December 2000. Jones was the last of a record 40 inmates executed in America's busiest capital punishment state that year and the last of 152 inmates put to death during now-President George W. Bush's time as Texas governor.

    The piece of hair led to Jones' conviction and execution for the 1989 shooting death of a liquor store owner in San Jacinto County, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Houston.

    State District Judge Elizabeth Coker set a hearing for Oct. 3 to consider whether DNA testing should be performed on the hair.
    The Innocence Project, a legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, was among plaintiffs seeking the court order and the mitochondrial DNA testing, which was not available when Jones was tried.

    "This was a case that really cried out for DNA testing because the physical evidence was so central to the conviction and it's very clear DNA testing can establish either way whether or not Claude Jones was wrongfully executed," Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison said.

    "Especially now that he's already been executed, the public interest really is in determining whether the procedures that were in place for determining innocence or guilt and whether someone should be executed were correct," she said.

    At Jones' trial, an expert in hair analysis linked the hair to Jones. With his execution imminent, the inmate filed, and later asked to withdraw, an 11th-hour state court plea seeking DNA testing.

    Other than the hair, the primary evidence against Jones was testimony from an accomplice, Timothy Jordan, who said Jones told him he committed the murder. Jordan and another man, Kerry Dixon, initially were arrested for the slaying. Jones was arrested later. Jordan got a 10-year prison term and Dixon a 60-year sentence. In an affidavit in 2004, Jordan said everything he said about the robbery and killing at the trial he learned from Dixon and that he testified against Jones to get a lighter sentence for himself.

    The single strand of Jones' hair, found at the murder scene, was supposed to have been destroyed with the case long resolved but inexplicably was not.

    "It's really a miracle it's preserved at all," Morrison said.

    http://truthinjustice.org/claude-jones.htm

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    June 16, 2010

    Judge orders DNA testing for man executed in 2000

    Claude “Butch” Jones’ last request before his execution just before Christmas 10 years ago was an emotional telephone call to his son in Houston who had never known his father until they were reunited on death row.

    The son, Duane Jones, now 49, remembers pointedly asking his father whether he had robbed and murdered the liquor store owner in San Jacinto County.

    “I told him he had nothing to lose by telling the truth now,” Duane Jones said. “But my father continued to remain adamant that he didn’t do it.”

    While the younger Jones, an associate engineer, thought his father was being truthful, he could never be certain — but now that may change.

    Visiting Judge Paul C. Murphy this week ordered testing of a strand of hair from Claude Jones’ case that death penalty opponents believe might provide the first DNA proof that an innocent man was executed.

    Murphy issued a summary judgment in favor of the New York-based Innocence Project and The Texas Observer, an Austin newsmagazine, which three years ago petitioned to do mitochondrial DNA testing on a hair fragment recovered from the counter of Zell’s liquor store in Point Blank, about 65 miles north of Houston.

    San Jacinto District Attorney Bill Burnett, who had assisted in the prosecution and died this month from pancreatic cancer, blocked the hair’s release. He argued state law provided no legal avenue for him to relinquish the 1-inch strand after Claude Jones’ death.

    Neither Burnett’s attorney, David Walker, nor the first assistant, Jonathan Petix, who has temporarily replaced Burnett, could be reached for comment on whether they will appeal.

    Meanwhile, the younger Jones remains guardedly optimistic.

    “It would mean a lot to me to know the truth, but it is really more important or paramount that the justice system know the truth,” he said. “If our state is going to be the execution capital of the free world, then it needs to be above reproach.”

    In 2000, Claude Jones was the 40th and last person executed in Texas that year, which set a national record.

    Duane Jones’ does not see himself as a so-called bleeding-heart liberal opposed to the death penalty, as his own family knows what it’s like to be a crime victim. He survived a bullet to the back of his head during a robbery in 1986, and his wife was the target of a home invasion just two months ago.

    When a deputy sheriff located him and told him his father, a career criminal he thought was dead, was alive on death row and wanted to see him, he felt conflicted but decided to see his father.

    Duane Jones visited him a half dozen times before the execution, during which he exchanged commissary money for his father’s ink drawings depicting his Indian heritage.

    During the visits, his father admitted to a sordid past as an alcoholic and drug user. From age 19 until his execution at age 60, he’d spent most of his life behind bars. He had a previous murder conviction, in which he poured gasoline on an inmate and then set him on fire.

    But he persistently denied killing the liquor store owner, Allen Hilzendager, who was shot once in the back and then twice more when he turned around.

    Similar characteristics

    The hair fragment, left in the evidence room since his 1989 trial, was the only physical evidence connecting Claude Jones to the crime scene. A Texas Department of Public Safety expert could testify then only that a cursory microscope examination indicated the strand “matched” the suspect’s hair. The expert could not exclude many others whose hair could have the same characteristics.

    The DNA testing being proposed now had not been developed before the trial.

    Barry Scheck, Innocence Project’s co-director, said the DNA testing could do one of three things:

    • It could prove Claude Jones guilt if he’s a match, similar to the post-execution DNA testing done on the 1981 rape-murder case involving the Virginia coal miner Roger Coleman.

    • It could exonerate him if the hair matches his co-defendant, Kerry Dixon Jr., who was supposed to have remained in the get-away truck while the elder Jones entered the liquor store.

    • If the hair matches neither of them, then the state did not have sufficient evidence to prove Claude Jones’ guilt, Scheck said.

    A key witness during the trial, Timothy Jordan, has recently recanted his testimony that Claude Jones had confessed being the triggerman to him. Jordan now says Dixon told him that Claude Jones did it. Dixon, who has made no police statements, is currently serving a life sentence for his part.

    Test called propaganda

    But Walker has contended DNA testing cannot provide conclusive proof of Claude Jones’ innocence, only propaganda for those opposing the death penalty. He notes two other witnesses described seeing a pot-bellied, middle-aged man wearing clothing like Claude Jones’ enter the store, although neither could positively identify him.

    Petix has also said releasing the hair could open a “floodgate” of requests for things such as O.J. Simpson’s gloves. They contended state law only allows a defendant to request DNA testing.

    Their opponents, however, believe the court saw “grim irony” in the fact that Claude Jones’ execution prevents him from making the request.

    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/...n/7054585.html

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    Hair casts doubt on executed man's guilt

    New DNA tests show it likely wasn't his, but the victim's instead

    A strand of light-colored hair prosecutors insisted linked career criminal Claude Jones to the robbery-murder of a San Jacinto County liquor store owner likely came from the victim, not from the accused killer, DNA testing revealed on Thursday.

    The new DNA testing came one decade after Jones' lawyer filed an unsuccessful execution-eve plea to then-Gov. George Bush to grant a 30-day stay so that such high-tech testing could be performed.

    Jones, 60, was executed on Dec. 7, 2000, for the November 1989 murder of Allen Hilzendager during the stickup of a Point Blank package store.

    Jones consistently maintained that he was innocent of the crime.

    The tests do not offer conclusive proof of Jones' innocence, but raise questions about his conviction, which was largely based on the hair fragment, the only physical evidence against him.

    Thursday's announcement came as vindication to Jones' son, Houston associate engineer Duane Jones, 50, who was reunited with his father only after the elder man found himself on death row.

    "I was 98 percent sure of what he was telling me," Duane Jones said of the convicted killer's claim of innocence, "but now I believe him 100 percent. He was railroaded. He did not shoot that man. I think not only am I owed an apology, but so is everybody in the whole state of Texas."

    Bush's decision to reject Jones' plea for a 30-day reprieve the day before he was executed followed the recommendation of his staff counsel Claudia Nadig, whose confidential report to the governor made no mention of the condemned man's request for DNA testing, despite that being the reason a stay was sought by Jones' lawyers.

    "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, co-director of the Innocence Project, which joined the Texas Observer, an Austin-based political journal, in calling for the new tests.

    Just prior to the Jones' appeal, Scheck noted, Bush had endorsed the post-conviction use of DNA testing to establish guilt or innocence in questionable cases.

    Had DNA testing been performed in 2000, Scheck said, Jones' conviction likely would have been reversed. "It's a pretty significant event to know someone was executed wrongly," Scheck said.

    'Troubling questions'

    Bush, who is traveling to promote his new memoir, Decision Points, declined to comment on the case. Nadig, now a government lawyer in Washington could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    "We can't be for certain that he's innocent because the DNA tests don't implicate the shooter," the Texas Observer's Dave Mann said of Jones. "But it certainly raises troubling questions about the case. The strand of hair was the piece of evidence that tied him to this crime and put him in the liquor store doing the shooting."

    The Innocence Project and the Texas Observer sought court intervention three years ago to clear the way for further testing of the hair.

    "This has cost me a lot in terms of emotion," Jones' son said. "I had a heart attack three years ago, turned gray and lost a lot of hair" waiting for the results.

    San Jacinto County prosecutors in Jones' trial argued that the Houston-born criminal, who had spent most of his life in Texas, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri prisons, shot the store owner three times at close range for a mere $900.

    County officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    The approximately one-inch strand of hair recovered from the liquor store's counter was key evidence in the trial. Besides the hair, prosecutors relied on eyewitnesses who testified they saw a man resembling Jones enter the store and Jones' accomplice, Timothy Jordan, who told jurors Jones had confessed shooting Hilzendager.

    Accomplice lied

    Jordan, who was convicted of perjury after telling conflicting stories to grand and trial jurors, later admitted he had lied during the trial. A third man, Kerry Dixon, is serving a life sentence for his part in the crime.

    During the trial, a Texas Department of Public Safety chemist testified the hair, which had been subjected to microscopic examination, matched that of Jones.

    But in addition to DNA testing of the hair at Mitotyping Technologies, a private Pennsylvania laboratory, a new microscopic examination of the hair was performed by City University of New York forensic scientist Nicholas Petraco.

    Petraco said the hair fragment was not suitable for testing because it lacked both a root and a tip. "I could tell that it was human, that was about all," Petraco said Thursday.

    Drawing conclusions from the microscopic examination of such a fragment "only leads to problems," he said.

    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/...n/7290273.html

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    A brother's last wish

    10 years after his execution, Claude Jones' ashes are laid to rest amid new questions about his guilt

    For 10 years, Travis Jones faithfully carried the ashes of his brother, who he believed had been wrongfully executed in Texas, in a box with him most everywhere he went.

    That box, which became Jones' constant companion, was finally lowered into a grave at White Oak Cemetery in Porter on Tuesday. It marked the 10th anniversary of his brother Claude Jones' execution. That was just as Claude wanted, a last wish that some family members initially viewed as "crazy" but now see as prophetic.

    Until his last breath, Claude, a 60-year-old career criminal, denied being the one who entered a San Jacinto County liquor store in 1989 to fatally shoot and rob the owner, Allen Hilzendager.

    Before the execution, Jones told his younger brother, Travis, that he did not want to be buried in a cemetery in Huntsville with other killers and rapists. He asked his brother to sprinkle a small portion of his ashes in 3 spots: the Gulf waters in Kemah, his mother's grave in Houston and his ex-wife's grave in Humble, but then preserve the rest for 10 years.

    "My brother promised 'all would come out good' after that. Good things would happen," said Travis, saying his brother refused to explain further and just repeated that things would turn out "good." "He'd gotten kind of religious. I don't know if he'd had some kind of vision or dream or what."

    But a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of the execution, new DNA testing has raised questions as to whether Claude was innocent. Mitochondrial DNA tests determined a strand of hair — which had been the only physical evidence linking Claude to the crime scene - actually belonged to the murder victim instead.

    An expert who had examined the same hair fragment under a microscope 10 years earlier had testified during Claude's murder trial that the strand "matched" the defendant.

    Without the hair evidence, Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, believes Claude's case might have been overturned for insufficient evidence.

    Lost track for 20 years


    Travis Jones, 58, a carpet installer now living in Miami, was the only one of Claude Jones' 7 brothers to attend the execution.

    Neither Travis nor Claude's other 6 brothers had ever been in trouble with the law. For about 20 years, Claude's brothers lost track of him after he stormed out of the house as a teenager. He was the admitted black sheep of the family who ran with a rough crowd and had gotten hooked on drugs and alcohol, the family said.

    In 1975, Travis decided to hunt down the oldest brother, Claude, after losing two younger brothers - one to leukemia and another who was fatally run over by a motorist. He found Claude in prison.

    "We grew very close," said Travis, who lost his home and went into debt to cover his brother's legal expenses and his own transportation costs to regularly visit him in prison.

    Even as Claude faced his death, he didn't waver over his innocence.

    "He said that he'd die and go to hell before confessing to something he didn't do," Travis said. "But he never pretended to be a saint."

    Most of life in prison

    From age 19, Claude spent most of his life behind bars. Yet he admitted committing only 1 murder - when he set a fellow inmate on fire whom he accused of trying to rape him.

    "Claude had been in prison so long that he was institutionalized. He didn't know how to make it on the outside. He told me that he belonged in prison but he didn't deserve to be executed," said Travis, who recalled feeling helpless as he watched the lethal drugs injected into his brother as he lay strapped to a gurney. "It took 2 shots because they had trouble finding a vein."

    Afterward, he abided by his brother's wish to wait 10 years before burying his ashes. He took the box with him everywhere, including when traveling across the country to do carpet installations in hotels.

    "Sometimes it bothered the hotel maids, and I had to hide it in a closet," he recalled. "Once a highway trooper stopped and looked inside the box, wondering if it was drugs. Then when he learned it was my brother, he told me to get out of there."

    Travis also used the ashes once to help straighten up a rebellious teen, warning him that he could wind up in a box like that.

    Tombstone epitaph


    Another brother, Clyde, 61, who attended the funeral, admitted he thought his brother had lost his mind.

    "I asked him about burying the box a couple of times, but he kept saying it wasn't time yet. He had to wait 10 years," Clyde said.

    "We couldn't believe he kept those ashes all these years," agreed another brother, Robert, 59, who works for the Humble parks department.

    Claude's only son, Duane Jones of Houston, said his father's words proved prophetic.

    What most frustrates Travis and other family members is that then-Gov. George Bush refused to stay the execution for DNA testing - a practice he usually endorsed. But the report Bush reviewed neglected to mention the DNA testing.

    Travis said the tombstone planned for the grave will state: "Wrongfully executed by George Bush."

    "I know Bush was misled," Travis said. "But my brother's death was not God's will, but man's will."

    (Source: The Houston Chronicle)

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    Brother of executed man hopes to prove another Texan innocent

    For the 2nd time, Travis Jones wonders whether his brother Claude's last wishes — which he insisted be fulfilled a decade after his execution on a murder charge in Texas - might once more prove prophetic.

    His 1st request was to not bury his ashes until the 10th anniversary of his Dec. 12, 2000 execution. By that time, Claude predicted "good things would happen," but he did not specify what.

    Travis dutifully hauled around Claude's ashes in a box for years. Then 2 months ago, while preparing to grant Claude's last request and bury his ashes in a Porter cemetery, Travis got amazing news.

    Mitochondrial DNA tests had determined a strand of hair - which had been the only physical evidence linking Claude to the crime scene - actually belonged to the murder victim instead. Travis believes this shows his brother was likely innocent of the robbery-slaying of a San Jacinto liquor store owner, as he had always professed.

    Now, Claude seems to be reaching from his grave again to say another Texan, Harold Cassell, has been wrongly accused. The 63-year-old from Denison was sentenced to life without parole for the capital murder of Arkansas policeman John Tillman Hussey more than 3 decades ago.

    Claude's 2nd request was that after his burial Travis contact Cassell to see what might be done to free him.

    Claims confession made

    Claude also left a notarized sworn statement in which he stated a former cell mate, James Ray Renton, serving a life sentence for the same officer's death, had confessed that Cassell was never involved.

    "Renton said he could not testify to this at Cassell's trial without putting himself in the electric chair," Claude's statement said. "Then if he made any statement later to free Cassell, he might never have any hope for appeal or clemency."

    Moreover, Claude wrote a will in which he bequeathed the portion of his late mother's 3-bedroom home in Port Arthur that he'd inherited to Cassell for legal expenses.

    Cassell, however, never made any claim on the house, which today stands empty, Travis said.

    But Travis learned Cassell does have an appeal of his conviction, filed in 2009, currently pending before the Arkansas Supreme Court.

    "I want to try to bring attention to this case and fight for his release," said Travis, a carpet layer from Miami. "He's been doing time for too long for no reason."

    Travis is continuing to keep in close contact with Cassell while working hard to let anybody who will listen know that he thinks a serious injustice has been done.

    From his small prison cell in Grady, Ark., Cassell wrote the Houston Chronicle about being "surprised" to hear from Travis so many years after his brother's execution, but grateful for his support.

    "It is hard to cut through all the legal subterfuge in my case," he wrote. "But I did not kill that police officer. I was not even in the state of Arkansas when the officer was killed."

    Officer kidnapped, killed

    He admits to having traveled with Renton and 2 others, Don McLaughlin and Larry Wallace, on a burglary spree into Arkansas.

    But he insists they had split up, and he and Wallace had returned to Oklahoma when Hussey was killed Dec. 21, 1975.

    On that day, the Springdale police officer's body was found in a remote wooded area with his hands cuffed and four bullet wounds to the head from his own revolver. He was kidnapped after radioing that he'd pulled over a blue van, believed to belong to McLaughlin, for a traffic stop.

    His patrol car was found abandoned several miles away with its blue lights flashing, while the van was found torched near the officer's body.

    McLaughlin's sister, Helen Vanlandingham, a retired store manager in Fort Worth, said her brother had confessed to her that he was the triggerman before overdosing on drugs to kill himself.

    'Friends on the outside'

    "He telephoned to say that he'd blown a cop's head off and couldn't live with it any longer," recalled Vanlandingham. "He said his only regret was that Cassell will go down for a crime he didn't do. He told me Cassell don't even kill bugs. He don't kill anything."

    She testified about the confession at Cassell's trial, but has since been haunted by guilt for stopping short of implicating Renton.

    "My brother told me that he and Renton were the only ones present," she said. "But I was afraid of Renton. He had friends on the outside."

    In fact, Renton would later make a daring escape from prison in 1988 that was reported on America's Most Wanted and eventually ended with his recapture.

    Noted photojournalist Danny Lyon came to the same conclusion about Cassell's innocence while researching a book on Renton's escapades, Like a Thief's Dream.

    Detective doesn't buy it

    On an appeal in 1981, a dissenting Arkansas Supreme Court justice wrote a powerful statement that there was no evidence to prove Cassell was ever at the murder scene. "But no elected judge wants to side with a convicted cop murderer," Lyon said.

    None of the officer's family could be reached. But the retired Springdale detective who worked the case, Mike Blocker, now disabled from a stroke, doesn't believe Cassell is innocent.

    "There's no ironclad case against anyone," Blocker said. "All cases are circumstantial. But he was identified as staying in the same motel with the other three who came to Arkansas."

    And there was a vague witness description of a "boxy" white car pulling up beside the van when it was stopped by the officer. One witness thought it might be a Ford and some said Renton had a Ford. Prosecutors, however, believedit was the Chrysler owned by Cassell.

    As Cassell awaits the judge's decision, the town of Springdale continues to hold a memorial service every year for the last officer to die while on duty there.

    (Source: The Houston Chronicle)

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