The bloody-minded, death-obsessed state of Texas, which has already demonstrably executed at least one innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham (who was falsely accused and ultimately killed by the state for the alleged arson “murder” of his two little children when in fact they’d died because of a fire caused by an electrical fault), may be about to execute yet another innocent man.
This time it’s Hank Skinner, 47, a man who has spent 16 years on the state’s busy death row protesting his innocence in the 1993 New Year’s Eve murder of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons, aged 20 and 22.
The thing about Skinner’s case is it would be relatively easy to prove whether or not he was really the killer of the three. There are two bloody knives that have never been tested for Skinner’s DNA–or for the DNA of Twila’s uncle, the man who had reportedly made several unwanted sexual advances at her earlier that evening, leading her to leave a party early, and who Skinner claims is the real killer. Nor was semen that was found on Twila Busby, who was raped, or skin found under her fingernails, ever DNA tested to see who they belonged to.
There were, to be sure, plenty of circumstantial reasons at the time to suspect Skinner. It is undisputed that he had been drunk and passed out on the couch in Busby’s house shortly before the murders, which occurred in the same room he was in. The drunken Skinner also staggered from the home in Pampa, TX, his hands bloodied, following the killings. But Skinner maintains that he had cut his hand, falling off the couch, and that the blood was his own. He says he had woken up to find Busby and her sons already dead.
Incredibly, police investigators at the crime scene never took fingernail clippings from Busby, nor did they take a vaginal swab at the scene, though she had clearly struggled and had apparently been raped.
Skinner’s court-appointed trial attorney could and clearly should have sought that DNA testing before or even during his trial, but didn’t bother to do so–no surprise, given the low quality of public defender representation provided in Texas, especially at that time. (Incredibly, that defense attorney, Harold Comer, was the same person who, as a district attorney, had earlier had prosecuted Skinner for two minor crimes–assault and car theft! Comer had lost his prosecutor’s post when he pleaded guilty to mishandling cash seized in drug cases his office had handled.)
But Skinner’s current appellate lawyer, Rob Owen, a University of Texas law professor, says that’s no reason not to do those tests today, to settle the matter once and for all–before Skinner is executed.
So far, inexplicably, the state of Texas has blocked his efforts to have the testing done. And time is growing very short. Skinner’s execution is set for Wednesday, March 24. He and attorney Owen have asked the US Supreme Court to block the execution and to order testing. As Owen told the Los Angeles Times, “In any investigation today, all of this evidence would have been tested for DNA. But why not do the testing now?"
On March 19, six men who had spent a collective 67 years on death rows for crimes they were later able to prove they did not commit gathered to call on Texas to do the right thing, and allow time for DNA testing of the evidence in Skinner’s case.
Curtis McCarty, who himself spent 21 years on Oklahoma’s death row waiting to die, only to finally get DNA testing of evidence that finally proved his innocence, says, “When evidence is available to be tested, it is criminal and unconstitutional not to test it.”
The gratuitously cruel attitude of the state of Texas, where the court of appeals rejected Skinner’s request for DNA testing, and where Gov. Rick Perry has been unwilling to intervene, has been clearly illustrated in its treatment of Skinner’s wife, Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, who has been barred for nearly a month from visiting her husband on death row, on the technicality that she is a foreigner (she is a French national).
Skinner came within a week of execution in February, when a state judge delayed the date for a month to allow his appeal to the US Supreme Court.
To take action on this outrageous case, and call on Gov. Perry to grant Skinner’s reasonable request to have the evidence in his case DNA tested, go here to write to Gov. Perry.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org