I don’t always plug my outside work here, because this blog is about parenting, dammit, not about the many ills I seem to trip across in my day job. But last year when I went down to Texas to report on the questionable conviction and execution of a drifter and bank robber named Claude Jones, I found something unexpected: a rather incredible story about a father and son. And now, as I wrote at Time.com today, the son won his long fight to have the evidence against his father DNA-tested. The results came back yesterday and showed that the only physical evidence—a one-inch strand of hair—didn’t come from the father, as the prosecutors and their expert witnesses had said. The hair belonged instead to the victim.
Duane Jones never knew his father growing up, but that was perhaps the least tragic part of his childhood. He was raised by his mentally ill grandmother after his mother passed away. But his mother didn’t just die: she was murdered, and Duane saw it happen. He was 6 years old, standing on the shore of a small lake in East Texas, as his mother and her boyfriend were in a boat just offshore. With no one else around, the boyfriend pushed Duane’s mother off the boat and held her under the water until she drowned. Duane tried to tell people what happened, but he was too young. No one believed him, and the death was ruled an accident.
Fast forward to the late 1990s, when Duane, already in middle age, found out where his father was. It was not going to be the reunion he hoped for, though: his father was on Texas’s Death Row, having been convicted of the 1989 murder of a liquor store owner in Point Blank, Texas.
I’ve written, over a series of articles about the Claude Jones case and the stubborn injustices of the original trial, about Duane and his relationship to his father. But I can’t say I know what I would have done in Duane’s situation, finding out that the only relative you have left is a convicted murderer. I’ve known Duane for about a year now, and not only is he a gentle soul, not at all criminal-minded, but he himself was a victim of violent crime, shot in the head by armed robbers when he was in his 20s. To find out that your father is the same kind of person as your attackers—the kind of person who went into banks and stores with a gun and stole from people—would be tough for any person. For Duane, it must have been torture.
But what’s remarkable is that Duane decided to build a relationship with his father. He began visiting him on Death Row. He brought money for his dad to spend in the commissary; his dad gave him drawings in return. And Duane chose to believe what his father told him, that he did a lot of robberies and plenty of other bad things, but that he did not shoot that man.
The decisions about Jones’ guilt and his death sentence were happening largely behind closed doors, though. Duane had no way of knowing, for example, when his father’s last, best chance at a fair hearing passed by. That was in late 2000, when a last-minute clemency petition reached then-Gov. George W. Bush’s desk. Bush had publicly said he’d halt any execution if there were new, relevant DNA tests that could be performed. But his legal team, perhaps distracted by the 2000 Florida recount fight that was already under way, never told Bush that the only physical evidence had never been tested for DNA (the technology was not widely used during the time of the original trial). They told Bush that Jones had gotten a fair trial, so Bush denied clemency and Jones was executed later that day.
Incredibly enough, prosecutors tried to avoid finding out the truth in the case even after Jones’ death. The hair survived by chance—it was supposed to have been destroyed—and when the Innocence Project and the Texas Observer wanted to get it tested, the San Jacinto DA fought just as hard to have it destroyed first. Ultimately it was their lawsuit, and not Duane’s, that decided the matter, but Duane’s persistent championing of his very flawed father was crucial to keeping pressure and attention on the story.
As I pointed out in my story today, it’s still possible that Claude Jones was the murderer. But we do know that he never would have been convicted if the hair had been properly identified.
This all feels, in a weird way, like a gift from Claude Jones to his son: he gave Duane a crusade, an unlikely fight for justice to carry out. Duane didn’t exactly phrase it this way, but I always felt that this battle for truth helped him make sense of his chaotic and tragic upbringing.
That does not make Claude a good father. He abandoned his family, committed some cowardly crimes, and opened the door to a lot of death and destruction in his son’s life. It just shows the amazing capacity that sons have for redeeming their fathers. Even those of us who try to do right by our sons will fail many times over, but Duane makes me believe that sons can pick up these failures and mold them into something positive. Did dad drink too much? You’ll stay sober. Did dad leave? You’ll stand by your family. Did dad beat you? Maybe, but that’s why you came out strong. Maybe it’s all pretense, just something that sons tell themselves to feel better about a bad lot, but that’s alright, too. Sons don’t need our permission to make success out of our shortcomings.
Congratulations, Duane, for your success today.