Monday, November 14, 2011
Hank Skinner Wins Stay Based on DNA Evidence
Bulletin: As this paper goes to press, on Nov. 7, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the execution of Hank Skinner pending the results of his legal challenges for DNA testing. The case was sent back to the trial court for further review. WW will provide an update.
Hank Skinner has been on Texas death row since 1995 for a 1993 murder he steadfastly has said he did not commit, and is now within days of a scheduled Nov. 9 execution. Yet the state of Texas continues to withhold key evidence that could be tested for DNA evidence before Skinner is put to death.
Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer is thumbing her nose at the law by refusing to release seven different untested items of evidence. A newly enacted Texas law requires DNA testing, regardless of when it is asked for, if a person’s life is at stake. The law, signed by Gov. Rick Perry, went into effect on Sept. 1.
Skinner was convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons in their Pampa, Texas, home. Skinner doesn’t deny that he was in the house that New Year’s Eve in 1993, but maintains that he was too incapacitated from a mixture of vodka and codeine to carry out the attacks.
Skinner’s court-appointed attorney had previously resigned from the district attorney’s office after he was caught siphoning money in an asset forfeiture case. He was appointed as Skinner’s counsel by a judge who was a personal friend. For representing Skinner, the judge ordered that the attorney be compensated an amount roughly equal to what the attorney owed in criminal fees.
This same attorney had formerly prosecuted Skinner on minor assault and theft charges, which were used as aggravating circumstances to get Skinner the death penalty. The attorney didn’t object.
In 2000, the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University began investigating the Skinner case when students uncovered physical evidence that witnesses said was critical to the case. The evidence includes a rape kit; fingernail clippings from Twila Busby; the murder weapons; and a windbreaker covered in blood and hair, found near the murder scene. The prosecution did not use this evidence in trial, and Skinner’s defense attorney did not ask for it, despite Skinner’s requests.
After Northwestern University professor David Protess challenged the district attorney on a talk show later that year, Texas conducted preliminary mitochondrial DNA testing on hair fibers Twila Busby was clutching at the time of her death. When those tests showed that the hairs belonged to neither Skinner nor the victim, the state halted any further testing.
Now the case is generating worldwide interest, with editorials in every major Texas newspaper as well as in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, West Australian, Guardian (Britain) and Huffington Post. The New York Daily News held a poll this week; the majority of respondents voted that Skinner should be allowed DNA testing.
On Nov. 4, Skinner’s supporters hand-delivered 16,000 signed petitions to Switzer urging her to grant the DNA testing. She has not responded. Then, in just two days, more than 130,000 people signed petitions calling on Texas governor and presidential candidate Perry to stay the execution until the evidence is tested.
“Testing DNA evidence has exonerated 275 prisoners in the United States since 1989, including 43 in Texas. So it seems unbelievable that the state of Texas refuses to turn over key evidence to be tested,” said Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, Skinner’s spouse and an activist with Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (Together Against the Death Penalty) based in Paris, France.
According to Locke Bowman, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, “Skinner’s long and winding journey through the Texas and federal court systems has been an absurd — and obscene — waste of time and money. … Shame on the Texas prosecutors and the judges who’ve wasted all this time obstructing the search for truth in Skinner’s case.” (Huffington Post, March 22)
The view of Skinner’s supporters is summed up by the San Antonio Express-News, which editorialized, “Justice isn’t served by putting innocent people behind bars … or on death row. Testing for DNA evidence should be routine in death penalty cases. It is unconscionable that the state would fight Skinner or anyone else to prevent such testing.” (April 3)
Protess, now head of the Chicago Innocence Project, recalls the recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia: “Skinner has gained support for his cause from, among others, six of the jurors who found him guilty and voted for death. Although this sordid episode is unfolding in Texas — a state that has already performed almost one-third of the country’s executions this year — it is not too late to speak out with Georgia still on your mind. Troy Davis would have liked that.” (Huffington Post, Oct. 4)
More information is available at www.hankskinner.org.