Brother of executed man hopes to prove another Texan innocent
For the second 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 first 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 two 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 three decades ago.
Claude’s second 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 three-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 theArkansas 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 two 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 Wantedand 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.