How I Got That Story: The Strand of Hair That Undermined Texas Justice

"Anytime you’re writing about the death penalty, you run into some very difficult political and emotional issues"

august 19, 2011  12:20 pm
How I Got That Story: The Strand of Hair That Undermined Texas Justice
Early in his career as a sports writer, Dave Mann realized he “wasn’t too into sports journalism” and opted for long-form investigative reporting.

That decision has served him well. With eight years on the staff of The Texas Observer, Mann, 34, is a multiple first place winner in AAN’s AltWeekly Awards. This year, he was recognized in the Public Service category for “DNA Tests Undermine Evidence in Texas Execution.” The story is one of several Mann has written examining of the credibility of forensic evidence.
How did this story come together?

Well, this was kind of a joint project. In 2007, we were contacted by the Innocence Project in New York. [Co-Director] Barry Scheck reached out to us and said that they were working on this case and they wanted to do some investigating into whether Claude Jones, who was executed in 2000—in fact, he was the last person executed under George W. Bush when he was Governor of Texas—was actually guilty or not.

This was a case that they’d had their eye on and they had discovered one of the key pieces in the case, this one strand of hair, was still in existence and in the backroom of the courthouse in east Texas and they wanted to get a hold of that hair for DNA testing. They wanted to partner with a media organization to help get a hold of the hair and submit it for DNA testing. They felt like it was important to partner with a media organization because this was an issue of the public’s right to know.

I mean, we’re not talking about his exoneration here, necessarily, but talking about the public’s confidence in the public justice system and if there are problems, we need to know where the problems are.

We signed on and requested access to the hair evidence, we were turned down and that led to a protracted court battle that lasted three years, I believe, in an effort to get the strand of hair. So, this is an interesting story because it obviously had major potential. This is an instance where someone that had been executed may have been exonerated by DNA evidence. That’s never happened. In this case, it turns out it didn’t happen, but that only this case had the potential for that. So, we were aware that this had an explosive potential as a story and more importantly, we felt like the public needed to know the details of what happened here.

How did you go about researching the story?

Well, it was interesting; this became a very explosive story, but in terms of actual research on my part, I can’t say that this was the most intensive story I’ve ever researched. I mean, out of all the stories I’ve done, there have been ones where I’ve spent months reporting and this went on for a very long time, but principally my role was talking with our attorneys, I filed an affidavit, staying updated on the case, and I’d write stories as things progressed, like when we had a ruling in our favor, when things were going to get appealed and so forth. But in terms of a lot of digging, there wasn’t much of that in the story because we were just trying to get a hold of the key piece of evidence, this hair.

The make or break issue was whether we were going to get a hold of it and submit it for DNA testing. So, the main thrust of our effort was this court fight. It went ongoing for several years; every few months, we’d get an update on it, every few months, I’d talk to attorneys about what was going on. If we had to file something with the court, we would. It was something we’d have to check in on periodically. Until the very end, when ultimately we were successful. The judge ruled in our favor, the other side choose not to appeal and the hair was turned over and we, along with the Innocence Project, picked a lab to do the testing, and then waited for the results to come back and wrote the story. It was kind of a rush at the very end.

Did the legal battle interfere with the paper’s reporting on other stories at all?

I don’t think it detracted from other things we were doing. It was intermittent. It would pop up every few months and we felt that this was an incredibly important case, an important issue, and a potentially explosive story, so it really deserved our time and energy, but it was never something we would have to work on all month. If we did have to put some things aside to focus on this story—on this case, that’s what it really was—there was no hesitation to do that because we felt like this was an incredibly important case.

But I would never have to spend three weeks digging through documents because this wasn’t that type of effort. If I had to spend a few afternoons talking to lawyers and filing an affidavit, then, yeah, we would gladly turn our attention to that because we felt like it was an important issue and if we didn’t do this, who was going to?

What would you suggest to papers that might experience legal issues over a story?

Well, I think patience is the number one thing. I think at one point, we didn’t hear anything for maybe a year; there would be long stretches of time where there nothing would really—it would just kind of be going through the legal process.

I think for people to keep in mind, to remember why these cases are important, to have the patience to see it through is clearly number one. I mean, it takes a long, long time and there’s no guarantee for payoff at the end, that you’re going to get a reward for your efforts. We could have lost a bit of vision and we wouldn’t have gotten there, nothing would have come of it.

If you believe it’s an important story and an important case, stick with it. Don’t worry about whatever politics that could come with it. I think anytime you’re writing about the death penalty, you run into some very difficult political and emotional issues and if you feel like it’s an important story and the public has a right to know about this particular issue, you just have to go a head with it and not be afraid of whatever flack might be out there, whatever political firestorm you happen to step into.

I think any good journalist would think that way, but I think there’s hesitancy from some media outlets to step into issues that may be too controversial. Sometimes, you have to see past that. If it’s worth pursuing, then the rest is kind of noise.

Are there any final thoughts about this story you’d like to share?

I just want to make clear that the results were inconclusive as far as Claude Jones’ actual innocence. The results did not prove undoubtedly his innocence, so we can’t say he was innocent. But, the results did undermine the evidence. Jones was convicted because the prosecution said this hair belonged to him and the DNA test showed that the hair did not belong to him. The hair was really the only piece of evidence that was placing him inside the liquor store, where the murder took place. So, without that, it is certainly open for debate and I think some people would say highly questionable whether he should have been convicted of murder or gotten the death penalty.

It’s a subtle distinction. We can’t say for certain he was innocent, but the key evidence in this case has been undermined, which is pretty disturbing, in and of itself.

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