Hypervocal offers the following update: Reason reports that “A spokesperson in Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s office has confirmed that a stay of execution has been granted for Hank Skinner, the Texas man convicted in 1995 for the murder of his girlfriend and her two adult sons two years earlier. The stay comes from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, not Perry himself.” Radley Balko adds that it’s not an order for DNA testing but rather “a stay to determine if he should get DNA testing.” Certainly good news for now.
All he wants is justice, which is what the state of Texas wants as well, which is why they’re going to execute Hank Skinner this Wednesday for the murder of three people. Hank of course is crying foul and time is running out as the state of Texas refuses time after time to allow DNA testing of unanalyzed evidence. Skinner insists he never committed the murders, which may well be true especially in light of new developments, the courts for their part refuse to budge having repeatedly denied motions to test the evidence? But why? Welcome to justice ala Texas style…
Before one can fully appreciate the dilemma at hand we need to go back to 1995 when Hank Skinner was convicted of the 1993 triple murder of his then girlfriend, Twila Busby and her two sons. Busby it was said was strangled and beaten whilst her sons were stabbed.
Skinner for his part admits he was at the scene when all three were murdered but that he was passed out. Complicating matters at the time of his trial was the fact that the attorney representing Skinner, (who had coincidentally prosecuted Skinner in the past, yes Skinner had a history of being a hard party guy with drinking problems) was a former district attorney with his own set of legal problems that had forced him out of his previous job as district attorney (he’d been found guilty of misappropriating money seized from drug busts) Problems which Skinner insists exacerbated his attorney’s ability to properly conduct his defense of Skinner as well his integrity given prior instances of pursuing Skinner as a district attorney (which forces the question of what was Skinner thinking when he appointed ex district attorney Comer as his defense attorney?).
At the time of the murder police said they came to find Skinner hiding out residing at an ex girlfriend’s house with blood all over his clothes. Hardly the most reassuring state of being for a man who’s insisting he had nothing to do with the murders. An immediate suspect of the police, Skinner was brought in front of the courts and eventually found guilty of the triple murders and sentenced to death. Yet here’s the rub, Skinner has since alleged that the police didn’t do a thorough job of analyzing evidence at the scene. The court’s turned around and effectively said- ‘tough luck, you had your chance, the time to dispute the evidence came and went,’ to which Skinner has claimed- ‘that his chance was squandered by his attorney at the time who hadn’t been fully diligent in his defense. Not fair!’
Now incarcerated, things then took a new turn in the year 2000 when a Northwestern professor, David Protess decided with the aid of his law students to re examine the apparent open and shut case of Skinner as things were heating up in the local state elections with the death penalty being a big ticket item up for review with the running of George W Bush for governor. Bush for his part wanted the death penalty to stick, Protess on the other hand wanted to prove the notion that innocent persons were sometimes sent to their death at the hands of a judicial system often too eager to get their man. That’s when things started to go awry as Protess and his students set out to re investigate the case and came away with more questions than answers, something that particularly unsettled Protess who has always held if you’re going to execute a man there has to be no reasonable doubt that the man in the docket is beyond guilty.
Damning evidence came when they interviewed Skinner’s ex girlfriend, Andrea Reed who had this to say:
texastribune: Skinner spent about three hours at her house before police arrested him the night of the murders. When they interviewed her, Jonsson says, she explained that she felt intimidated by police and worried that she could somehow be implicated in the crime if she didn’t testify against Skinner. In 1997, she recanted her incriminating testimony, writing in an affidavit that she had lied at trial, and that Skinner’s admission that he kicked Busby to death was one of several fantastic stories he made up in his drunken stupor the night of the murders. “She’d basically been given guidelines for what she was going to say” at trial, Jonsson says. “To us, she seemed sincere.”
With mounting political pressure the new district attorney, John Mann in 2000 felt compelled to re test evidence found at the scene, except he didn’t have certain evidence re tested- which Skinner claims had he would’ve cast doubts as to his involvement with the triple murder. Not tested were, knives found at the scene said to be used in the stabbings, Busby’s fingernail clippings, a rape kit, the windbreaker and a bloody dishtowel.
Since then Skinner and his lawyers have insisted on the testing of said evidence with the courts refusing each time, something that doesn’t make sense when one presupposes that when a man has been sentenced to death there ought to be no reasonable doubt as to his involvement of the crime.
Then in 2001 a new law came about that would qualify the restesting of DNA evidence that wasn’t able to be done sufficiently given the limitations of technology at the time of the crime. But somehow that new ruling wasn’t extended to Skinner’s case.
When legislators in 2001 passed a law allowing for post-conviction DNA testing in cases where such evidence existed but had never been examined, Skinner hoped the measure would finally force the state to turn everything over. The law allows for testing in cases where technology wasn’t available at the time of the trial or where untested evidence has the potential to exonerate. State and federal courts so far have ruled that Skinner’s case doesn’t meet those guidelines.
Comer, Skinner’s attorney at the original trial had this to say at a later date:
“I didn’t want to take the risk of poking holes in his own case by testing more evidence that might come back with Skinner’s DNA. I’m not new at this. I’ve tried four or five capital cases. I’ve been at it 50 years, so I have an instinct, or a feeling, for what’s good for my client. I don’t second-guess that decision at all.”
Except Skinner has second guessed that decision and the courts for their part have held in later testimonials that Comer did in fact properly defend (should we be surprised?) and that there was no compelling reason to re evaluate the evidence, with the courts arguing a re testing of the evidence was unlikely to show anything different from previous DNA testing, this after Skinner filed another motion in 2007 citing new legal developments that the original testing of DNA evidence was flawed. The courts once again argued that Skinner was at fault for not having the temerity to request DNA testing (perhaps one wonders for fear of further incriminating himself at the time of was it sheer bad strategy at the hands of his defense lawyer Comer?) of the evidence at a 1995 trial date when he had his chance to do so, his request was once again denied.
Belying the reticence of the courts to allow Skinner and other inmates like him to retest evidence comes courtesy of State Sen. Robert Duncan who wrote the original 2001 post conviction DNA bill:
“There’s 155,000 people in prison. If you change the rules so you can having testing any time, you’re going to get 155,000 applications tomorrow, because what have they got to lose?”
What do you have to lose perhaps ultimately is the integrity of the legal system, but for now it looks like Skinner is a sitting duck, so much for trying to preserve legal sanctity when men’s lives hang in the balance. So much for crime and punishment in Texas one may wonder…
But as one commentator astutely notes:
“If postmortem testing proves him innocent, it will end the death penalty in Texas. ”
Something of course we would never want right? Go figure…