VILE Podcast: 'State's Exhibit 47,' Kerr DA reflects on sensational Jones trial
Author: Stacey Welsh
Published: 9:32 AM CST February 1, 2018
Updated: 9:13 AM CST February 2, 2018

Ron Sutton definitely didn't get the chance to ease into his role as Kerr County District Attorney. His beloved Hill Country community didn't prove to be as peaceful as he expected it would be when he was appointed to the job in 1977 by former Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe.

“My career as the DA totally turned around once I was sworn in. Before that, you didn’t have any major crimes in this rural country. All you had was, well, you might have a burglary here and there. You might have a drug case with a DWI. Nothing real, real serious.

Within a month after I took over as district attorney, I had a murder case in Kerrville. We hadn’t had a murder case in Kerrville for years. Then after that, we had a capital murder case," Sutton said.

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"My predecessor said there [would be] nothing to do. That capital murder case went on for months. Then, just a couple of years later, the Genene Jones deal comes up," Sutton said.

A statue of the Greek goddess of divine justice stands watch over the historic Willamson County Courthouse.

Genene Jones' 1984 trial for the murder of Chelsea McClellan would be a defining moment for Sutton, Chelsea's mother, Petti, and many who were involved in the case.

It also would bring national attention to Kerrville.

Most of the trial went on in one small courtroom, and they’d regulated the number of people that could come in because it was so crowded. We got to use one big courtroom. Occasionally, when it wasn’t being used by the other judge, we’d use it. We used it for closing arguments. But for just day-to-day testimony and evidence, we used the smaller courtroom. It was still a fairly large courtroom, but it was small in the sense that everybody couldn’t get in.”

Due to a change in venue, Jones’ trial took place in the historic Williamson County Courthouse in Georgetown, Texas, just north of Austin.

The courthouse is a grand fixture with long columns stretching down to the main doors, and it’s surrounded by charming shops and restaurants.

A large statue of the Greek goddess of justice presides over the building, carrying scales in one hand and a sword in the other.

Today, the large courtroom Sutton described doesn't see the same amount of action that it did back then.

According to a Williamson County public information officer, a courtroom where the Genene Jones murder trial took place is now used for commissioners court.

Producers Stacey Welsh and Emily Porter visited the courthouse and were told what was then the 277th District Court is now used primarily for county commissioner’s court, not criminal trials.

In 1984, the courthouse served as the backdrop to a trial that would be reported far and wide.


VILE Podcast: 'State's Exhibit 47,' Kerr DA reflects on sensational Jones trial

Chapter 1

Stirring the pot

“It was definitely sensational. There’s no question about that. Every time I’d drive up to the courthouse, I’d be stormed with reporters from everywhere in the United States. The New York Times had a correspondent there," Sutton said.

With Genene Jones speaking out in the press before her trial even started, her attorney at the time, Bill Chenault, said he became frustrated with her behavior.

"She likes to stir the pot. Certain people like to stir the pot," he said.

He had met Jones through her family and said he tried to give her some advice about the case early on.

Jones has two kids, a boy and a girl. Chenault had helped her with a child support case, but he said he never predicted Jones would need legal counsel for a murder charge soon after.

“Her brother and I were both officers in the San Antonio Jaycees. He came to me and said his sister needed some help getting some unpaid child support and asked if I would help her. He was a nice guy and that sort of thing, so I said fine, I'd help. It turned out to be Genene Jones. We had a hearing on that, and I didn't hear from her much for a while. I knew she was a nurse.

I got this call a year or so later saying she's in Kerrville and she had this problem. I talked to her a little bit, and then I started helping. Among other things, I tried to give her some ideas like 'don't talk to anybody, don't discuss the case... keep a low profile.' I say that because the problem was she wasn't low profile at all. She spent a lot of time talking. She called her own press conferences. If you're a criminal defendant, you keep your mouth shut and try to stay far away.

At any rate, she loved publicity. She'd go to a press conference and she'd be talking to the press. She wanted to tell her story. She wanted to talk to the grand jury, which is something you don't do," Chenault said.

Chenault said Jones' quest for attention, combined with family commitments and the cost of staying in Williamson County during the trial, led him to withdraw from the case after a few months.

Chelsea's mother, Petti McClellan, also was thrown into the spotlight Jones had created.

“When you take a normal person that has a normal life, I'd never done anything with the media. I never knew I would deal with media. I don't know what I was expecting. I definitely wasn't expecting the media attention," Petti said.

KENS-TV file video even shows a photographer in the media gaggle bumping into Petti outside the courthouse as she and her husband, Reid, tried to shuffle out of the way.

“There were people everywhere, all in my yard and my street. When I would go to the grocery store, it was just very, very overwhelming, you know? I was petrified," Petti said.

As we reported in Vile Episode 3, Sutton’s prosecution team had a rare and expensive test performed. That screening found traces of succinylcholine in Chelsea's body.

Former Kerr County District Attorney Ron Sutton kept the original vial of succinylcholine (lid pictured right) that was used to convict Genene Jones.

After her body was exhumed, samples had been sent all the way to Sweden for testing. That process already had made headlines.

“This was the first time in the United States that there had ever been a trial where succinylcholine was proven to exist in its original compound form in the human body. It’s the first time ever. I was told by many in the medical profession and the toxicology profession that you couldn’t find it. It’s totally gone, divided and gone," Sutton said.

A KENS-TV archive report states that, according to court testimony by forensic toxicologist Dr. Frederich Rieders, the highest concentration of succinylcholine was found in Chelsea's right thigh.

"I was particularly interested in succinylcholine myself and how it works because when I was in college, I had really bad tonsils. During summer recess, my parents took me to a hospital in San Angelo to have my tonsils removed. In operations, succinylcholine was used quite frequently to put the body totally at ease and relaxed and to place intubation tubes down your throat so you could breathe.

They did that to me, but the succinylcholine took effect before the anesthesia took its effect and put me to sleep. In other words, they were backwards. All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. I was scared to death that something was wrong. It didn’t last but a couple of seconds, but I was absolutely horrified. I couldn’t say anything and couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move my arms, but my brain was still working. My eyes were still working. I was absolutely horrified. Can you imagine a small child having this experience? I mean, it’s the most horrific thing. In other words, you’re dead and alive at the same time," Sutton said.

Chapter 2

Country Bumpkin

The trial was all about strategy for Sutton. He carefully planned how he would use lunch breaks and court recesses to advance his own narrative.

"You end on a high point, in other words. Every time you took a break, you wanted to have something to hit them with a high point. It’s kind of like making a movie. You’ve got to get the attention of the jury and let them put the case together. Let them decide who did it.

It was quiet as a mouse in there because people were so interested in what was going on and what was being said and everything. The way I planned my testimony was to put on my evidence, and we knew what time break time was going to be. I would want to stop at break time with something really sensational and important so it would soak in the jury real well while they were out on break or lunch or whatever they were doing," Sutton said.

He also had a strategy planned for when Petti McClellan took the stand. As the witness and mother of the young victim, her testimony was key to the case.

Sutton said he did not want to give her much notice of when she would testify because he didn't want her to dwell on it or become upset over other testimony.

He also said he did not want Reid McClellan to be present during Petti's testimony.

"He was the type of person that could really blow up quick. I didn’t want that to happen to cause a mistrial, so I did not want him there," Sutton said.

He called her to the stand at 9 a.m. on the morning of her testimony, and Sutton said he wanted to keep Petti there until noon.

"I just asked questions that were material to the case, but nevertheless, burned up the clock a little bit. Then I took the picture out of my office file with the McClellan baby. I asked her if that was her baby. That was it. I mean, she fell apart," Sutton said.

Petti said Jones had her own way of drawing attention to herself at the trial.

“She would sit there and she would doodle on a tablet or something. She would laugh, and she would smile. When it would get close to lunch time, she would say, ‘I wonder what they're going to have for lunch. I'm hungry. I hope they're serving something good,'" Petti said.

Former Kerr County District Attorney Ron Sutton's gold watch sits next to the key piece of evidence in Genene Jones' 1984 murder trial.

Another part of Sutton's strategy was incorporating what he calls "country bumpkin" tendencies.

He said he would knock books or papers off of his counsel table, making it appear accidental.

"If testimony was coming in that I felt was not beneficial to me, or maybe even hurting me, I would create something to distract the jury from thinking about what that witness was saying that was detrimental to me. I always carry a pocket knife with me, and I had wood pencils. I took out my knife, and I started sharpening that pencil.

The jury wasn’t paying attention to what was going on. They were watching me sharpen that pencil. When we took a break, my assistant said, ‘Let me have your pencils, and I’ll go take them and sharpen them.’ I said, ‘No, they don’t need to be sharpened. That’s not the reason I sharpened them,’” Sutton said.

One of his favorite planned distractions was playing with his father's gold pocket watch.

"This was one of the best I ever did," Sutton said. "If something was going on and I didn’t like how it was coming, I’d take that and mess with it a little bit. I’d glance up and everybody on that jury was not paying a bit of attention to what was going on in the evidence part of it. They were watching me tinker with this gold watch of my father’s.”

Chapter 3

'Like little missiles'

The syringe became a symbol for Sutton, and he wanted the jury to associate it with Jones and her actions as much as possible. He said watching an attorney at another trial inspired this technique.

Diane Sutton lifts framed artwork of her husband, Ron, off the wall. He said it was a gift from a Dallas Morning News artist who covered the Jones trial.

“I got a bunch of syringes, tall ones. I set them in front of my counsel table every day and lined them up like little missiles. Every day they sat there, regardless of what the testimony was. It didn’t make any difference, because they were missiles there for the jury. They would see these missiles and think about syringes. It’s subtle, but it’s there," he reflected.

Sutton also said he had to try to pick jurors who would take interest in the medical and scientific nature of the testimony.

He has framed artwork in his Junction, Texas home that shows him addressing the jury while holding a syringe. He said it originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

"For my closing argument, they had a statue on the courthouse down there holding a long sword," Sutton said. "At the very tail end of my argument, I said, 'If [Jones] is not convicted, we need to replace the sword on top of this courthouse with a giant syringe."

Chapter 4

State's Exhibit 47

After more than 30 years, Sutton kept the original vial introduced at trial and a test vial of succinylcholine that was compared to the used one.

Both were sitting on a shelf in his living room.

“After the trial and appeal was over and the case was totally over with, the clerk’s office called me and told me they were going to destroy all this evidence. If I wanted any of it for some reason, I could come down and get it. So I did. [There were] certain articles and mostly pictures, but most important is the succinylcholine," Sutton said.

The original label and evidence label are still attached to the vial used to convict Jones of Chelsea McClellan's murder.

One larger hole, and a smaller one immediately next to it, are still visible on top of the used vial.

“On careful examination, especially with a magnifying glass, you can see that there’s two holes in there. We formulated that with two holes, some was withdrawn for an injection and to make it look like she hadn’t used it. She filled the bottle up with saline. That’s what the chemist testified to that with the test bottle, it was pure succinylcholine, and the other one was greatly diluted with saline solution," Sutton said.

The used vial is labeled "State's Exhibit 47."

Jones did not testify during her trial, although Sutton said he would have relished the opportunity to have cross examined her. In the end, Jones was found guilty of Chelsea's murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison. As he predicted, Sutton said the jury came back with a verdict in less than two hours.

Jones was sentenced to the maximum punishment under the law.

“I’ve been asked many times why I didn’t seek a life sentence rather than 99 years. At that particular time, 99 years and life were the same thing. I felt in my mind that 99 would be more impressive than saying a life sentence. When you say 99, that’s a real number. 99. Some ask me why I didn’t seek the death penalty. At that particular time, the murder of a child was just murder. It wasn’t capital murder. So, I did the best I could with 99. 99 really rang out like a big bell all across the country, in the medical profession and everywhere else. 99, when you think about it, that’s a long damn time. It sticks with you, and you remember it," Sutton said.

Chapter 5

'I can't take it'

Sutton said Jones' conviction was a high point in his 32-year career as Kerr County district attorney, but prosecuting violent crimes in what he thought was a peaceful Texas Hill Country community brought him some low points as well.

“I went through several marriages, and they said, ’I can’t take it.’ That Genene Jones deal, I had just gotten married when that thing happened. I was gone just about the whole year. [My wife at the time] said, ‘Oh, I can’t take it.’ My first wife wanted a divorce a year after I was appointed DA. Ironically, with my judge, both his wife and my wife decided they wanted a divorce around the same time. Then the second one, during this Genene Jones stuff, went downhill, too.

Before Diane and I got married, we were talking about it, and I said, ‘Look, this is the way my life has been. This is the way it’s going to be. It’s going to be one sensational case after another one, and I don’t know if this will work out or not.’ But we got married. We went to San Antonio on our honeymoon. We woke up the next morning, and they threw some papers by our hotel room door. Well, guess what was on the front page? A family murdered down here in Harper, Texas. It was a big sensational deal. Well, here’s what you got into, but she’s held to it," Sutton recounted.

So far in the the Vile Podcast series, you’ve heard from people like Ron Sutton, Peter Elkind and Petti McClellan about how this case changed and, in some cases, even shattered their lives.

But what about Genene Jones? What was her life like before she became a nurse and before children started dying under mysterious circumstances?

In the next episode of Vile, we talk with someone who knew Jones very well.

KENS 5 is taking a look back at the history of the Genene Jones case and following new developments in the Vile podcast. This is an ongoing project. If you are connected to the case, and you would like to speak with us, email swelsh@kens5.com.

Stick with KENS5.com/Vile for the latest updates in our podcast series, plus photos, videos and audio recordings related to the story.