Condemned Texas man seeks reprieve for DNA testing
LIVINGSTON, Texas – Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner doesn’t deny he was in the house where his girlfriend was fatally bludgeoned and her two adult sons stabbed to death in 1993, but he insists that DNA testing could exonerate him.
Skinner, scheduled to die Wednesday in Huntsville for the New Year’s Eve triple slaying more than 16 years ago, visited with his French-born wife as he waited for the U.S. Supreme Court or Texas Gov. Rick Perry to decide whether to stop his execution.
He and his attorneys contend his lethal injection should be halted for DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene in the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa. Results of those tests could support his innocence claims, they said.
«It’s real scary,» Skinner, 47, said recently from death row. «I’ve had dreams about being injected.
«I didn’t commit this crime and I should be exonerated.»
The former oil field and construction worker contended a toxic combination of vodka and codeine left him incapacitated and he had neither the mental capacity nor physical strength to kill his girlfriend, Twila Jean Busby, 40, and her two adult sons, Elwin «Scooter» Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20.
Prosecutors have argued that Skinner isn’t entitled to testing of evidence that wasn’t tested before his 1995 trial. Courts over the years since his conviction have rejected similar appeals.
Texas is the nation’s most active capital punishment state and a target for death penalty opponents. The state executed 24 prisoners last year and Skinner’s would be the fifth this year.
Criticism escalated in the past year amid questions about evidence that led to the 2004 execution of convicted arson-murderer Cameron Todd Willingham. Prosecutors insist evidence in that case was solid. But an arson expert concluded the investigation was so flawed its finding the fire was set deliberately could not be supported. And when the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to take up the expert’s report, Perry — under whom 212 Texas inmates have been executed — replaced most members of the panel.
Among evidence presented to jurors in Skinner’s case was the blood from two victims on his clothing. His bloody handprints also were found in the bedroom of Busby’s slain sons and on a door leading out the back of the house. Prosecutors also suggested Skinner, who had a serious hand wound, cut his hand when a knife slipped during one of the murders. Skinner said he cut it on broken glass.
Police were summoned when the mortally wounded Caler appeared on the front porch of a neighbor’s home. The bodies of his mother and half brother then were discovered in their home. Officers followed a blood trail four blocks to a trailer home of a female friend of Skinner. He was in a closet.
Skinner and his lawyers said the actual killer could have been Twila Busby’s uncle, Robert Donnell, who died in 1997. Donnell, described in court documents as a «hot-tempered ex-con» known for getting more violent when he drank, attended the same New Year’s Eve party Busby attended. Skinner couldn’t go because he was passed out.
«Take the time necessary to be scientifically certain of Mr. Skinner’s guilt before permitting him to be executed,» Skinner’s attorneys, led by University of Texas law professor Rob Owen, urged the governor.
To the Supreme Court, they argued there were «troubling, unresolved questions about whether Mr. Skinner could have committed the murders.»
Prison records show Skinner’s activities have been restricted in recent weeks because he allegedly misbehaved. The records indicate he blocked the window on his cell door with paper and refused to remove it, and threatened to squirt an officer with feces.
On Tuesday, Skinner spent several hours with Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, a 49-year-old French national he married in 2008. Her visits this week were her first in months because she was banned for prison rules infractions, Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said.
France’s ambassador to the U.S., Pierre Vimont, asked Perry to pardon Skinner or suspend his execution so the killings can be further investigated, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Wednesday during an online briefing from Paris. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has offered Ageorges-Skinner «Frances support,» Valero said.
Skinner’s lawyers wanted DNA testing on vaginal swabs taken from Busby at the time of her autopsy, fingernail clippings, a knife found on the porch of Busby’s house and a second knife found in a plastic bag in the house, a towel with the second knife, a jacket next to Busby’s body and any hairs found in her hands that were not destroyed in previous testing.
His trial lawyer, Harold Comer, said he didn’t have them tested because he feared the results would be even more incriminating.
Lynn Switzer, the Gray County district attorney whose office prosecuted Skinner, has declined to speak about the case because she’s the defendant in Skinner’s court claims. The trial prosecutor, John Mann, has since died.
A decision by Perry to stop Skinner’s execution to allow evidence testing would be unusual but not unprecedented. In 2004, he halted the scheduled execution of Frances Newton, who was condemned for the slayings of her husband and two young children in Houston, after the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles recommended she be spared. New tests Newton requested on ballistics evidence failed to exonerate her and she was executed the following year.