AG’s Office Gives OK to Test DNA in Hank Skinner Case

A full 3,888 days after Hank Skinner first asked for testing of the DNA in the murder case that sent him to death row, the Texas Attorney General's Office finally relented. 
Tue June 5, 2012 11:56 pm
AP Photo | Michael Graczyk

After years of requesting DNA testing in his case, death row inmate Hank Skinner finally got the green light he has wanted. On Friday, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which has long opposed testing, finally relented, backing DNA testing in the case in an appellee advisory filed with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

“Upon further consideration, the State believes that the interest of justice would best be served by DNA testing the evidence requested by Skinner and by testing additional items identified by the state,” the filing said. The state had blocked testing, citing Chapter 64 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

Rob Owen, one of Skinner’s attorneys and a visiting professor of law at Northwestern University, cheered the news in a statement.

“For more than ten years, Mr. Skinner has been fighting to have key items of evidence in his case subjected to DNA testing. We are pleased that the State finally appears willing to work with us to make that testing a reality,” Owen said. “In 2000, the State squandered an opportunity to pursue full and fair DNA testing when it excluded Mr. Skinner’s legal team from any role in such decisions.”

Skinner was sent to death row in 1995 after being convicted in the 1993 murder of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons in Pampa. Skinner has long maintained he couldn’t have committed the crime because he was incapacitated that evening by all the codeine he had taken and vodka he had drunk.

The untested evidence includes the rape kit, Busby’s fingernail clippings, hairs found in her hand, a windbreaker found at the crime scene, and two knives. He has been scheduled to die three times, with one execution being halted less than an hour before it was scheduled.

The editorial board of the Dallas Morning News applauded the decision on Tuesday:

It took them awhile over at the Texas attorney general’s office, but they got the point.

Back in May, attorneys for the AG were hard at work defending the death sentence of inmate Hank Skinner of West Texas, arguing in court once again that it was a waste of time to allow DNA tests on a trove of items from the crime scene.

Enter Judge Michael Keasler, of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, who reduced the matter to common sense.

“You really ought to be absolutely sure before you strap a person down and kill him,” Keasler told lawyers for the state.

Point made. The AG’s office announced a new position in the Skinner case Friday with words familiar to any of us who have found ourselves defending the indefensible. … The AG’s lawyers might have used language as plain as Keasler’s. Maybe something like this:

“Sorry, judge. What were we thinking? We get it. We get it that executing someone would be madness if we didn’t erase as much doubt as possible with DNA tests. We didn’t want to kowtow to a guy we think is trying to manipulate the system, but we’ll suck it up. We know the public is looking over our shoulder on these things, because of all those DNA exonerations, and to deny that possibility here — however slight — would be a public relations nightmare. So let’s go and schedule those tests.”

…There is one other glaring reason for the state to relent in the DNA fight: A new law, passed by the Legislature last year, improved access to forensic exams on items that had never been tested or never tested with the latest technology. In keeping with Keasler’s plain-spoken approach, it might have been dubbed the Let’s Be Damn Sure Act.

That’s the standard Texas must guarantee for the nation’s busiest death chamber.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s editorial board also weighed in this week, saying whether the results of the testing supports Skinner’s theory or the prosecution’s, “either way, knowing is better than speculating – for the sake of all those involved and for public confidence that no innocent person is being executed in our name.”

David Protess, the president of the Chicago Innocence Project, blogged about the case at the Huffington Post and pointed out it that Skinner has been asking for this testing “for more than 11 years — 3,888 days, to be exact.” Protess unpacks the history of the fight for testing:

The battle over DNA began, innocently enough, as a class project for my investigative reporting students at Northwestern University in 2000. The assignment: Review all the documents in the case, interview Skinner on death row and head to the Panhandle to interview key witnesses. It quickly became complicated for the student-sleuths when they discovered reports on the untested evidence that – if properly preserved – should be rich with DNA. Next, they wanted to know whether Skinner would agree to the tests.

Skinner didn’t hesitate: He told the students that he always wanted the tests, but unwisely heeded the advice of his trial lawyer – the former D.A. of that county. He would gladly supply whatever samples were needed to finally do the tests.

A few days later, in the Panhandle, the State’s star witness recanted her trial testimony in an audio-taped interview with the students, saying the D.A. who prosecuted Skinner had pressured her to lie. They also interviewed witnesses who were sure the female victim’s uncle had committed the crime. Most damning: A witness swore that the jacket found next to the woman’s body belonged to her uncle.

Back on campus, we planned the release of the students’ findings, which eventually were reported in the spring of 2000 on the AP wires and NBC News. That led to a memorable confrontation on Court TV between the D.A. and me in which host Nancy Grace shamed him into promising tests on the remaining evidence.

But when several of results excluded Skinner, the D.A. backed off. Fearful of what the forensics would turn up on the murder weapons, the hairs and the jacket, he unilaterally halted the testing. That’s when Skinner’s lawyers filed suit in 2001

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