Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hank Skinner Part I: Introduction

February 12, 2010 -- Two weeks ago tomorrow, I learned of a disturbing case. On that day, The Skeptical Niece sent me an email regarding a case she had come across. Would I consider it, she enquired, as the basis for a future addition to The Skeptical Juror series?

The case was that of Hank Skinner, convicted of a triple murder in 1993 in Pampa, Texas. I learned quickly that Hank Skinner is scheduled to be executed this month, on the 24th of February.

My initial reaction was to unequivocally exclude the case from consideration, now and forever. My concern was that, if I worked on the case after the execution, I might discover something I could have done to help an innocent person had I only thrust myself immediately and aggressively into the case. Such a discovery would weigh too heavily on me. Ignorance, while not necessarily bliss, seemed a preferable option.

I was unable to ignore the case, though. A cursory review suggested that Hank Skinner might indeed be innocent. Adding to my unease, there seemed to be substantial DNA evidence yet to be tested, or already tested and yet to be released. Under both circumstances, the State of Texas was fighting mightily to hoard all DNA evidence so that Hank Skinner could quickly and quietly go to the needle.

By the next day, I had reconsidered. I would be willing to add the case to our series, on one condition. The Skeptical Niece would need to join me in a frantic, no-holds-barred effort to assist Hank Skinner in the woefully brief time before his execution. Though the chance of success was, and still is, miniscule, we agreed to commit ourselves to the case.

By Monday evening we had the outline of a plan. Clearly, there was no time for a book of any length before the scheduled execution. In fact, we decided it was futile to rely solely on the written word. Many supporters had already written lengthy and well-researched articles about the case, yet the execution was proceeding apace. Instead, we decided we had to focus on a single, overriding issue, and we needed to present that issue in an eye-catching, single-page graphic. We would put the graphic in the hands of those people having the power to avert the ultimate injustice. Those people would be tempted to peek and compelled to act.

Or so we willingly deceived ourselves, in lieu of giving up.

We decided the overriding issue in this case is the sequence of executing first and testing later. Our catch phrase became:


We divided ourselves into two understaffed teams of one person each. I assumed responsibility for absorbing the facts of the case, and for devising a graphic image. (We would pay for a graphic designer to convert the concept into a professional product.) The Skeptical Niece assumed responsibility for everything else, including the mailing list and all external communications.

We won't speak of our next two weeks, difficult as they may have seemed for us at the time. Our travails and our time lost are unworthy of discussion when compared against the tribulations of Hank Skinner, and the prospects which await.

Our resulting work product, the graphic and a provocative cover letter, are now available. Surely you must have seen them above. The nature of our product, however, prohibits a thorough presentation of all facts and arguments, for both sides. We hope to do that here, or at least lead you to sources which tell the story more completely.

One such source, Brandi Grissom, a reporter for the The Texas Tribune. She has so far published three well-researched articles titled Case Open and Case Open: The Investigation and Case Open, File Closed.

In Part II of this series, we begin telling, in our fashion, the chain of the events which has led us all here today.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hank Skinner Part II: The Crime Scene

New Years Eve, 1993
Pampa, Texas

Elwin Caler had been stabbed multiple times in the chest and stomach. He was alive but mortally wounded. The neighbors found him sitting on their front porch, wearing nothing except a pair of bloody undershorts. They called for help. Elwin died at the hospital before he could reveal the identity of his killer.

Elwin was Twila Busby's 22 year old son, six-foot six-inches tall, 215 pounds, and mentally challenged. He lived at the house next to where he was found. His blood trail led back home.

There, on Twila's front porch, the police found a knife and some bloody gauze. There were no fingerprints on the knife. Perhaps someone had attempted to clean the knife with the guaze.

There was a bloody handprint on the front storm door. Investigators would remove the glass panel from the door, cover the handprint with a sheet of stiff paper, and tape the edges of the paper to the glass. They would secure the glass and its handprint in the evidence vault.

Beyond the door were bloody boot prints originating from copious blood stains on the living room floor. Twila Busby's body lay face down in that blood, her head smashed 14 times by an ax handle which leaned against the couch nearby. Whoever swung the ax handle did so with considerable force. Twila's skull was fractured. Bits of skull were driven all the way to the middle of her brain.

The overhead light was shattered, an unintentional victim of the ax handle. Broken glass was mingled with the blood below.

The medical examiner would later determine that Twila had been strangled, apparently before being bludgeoned. Her larnyx was crushed and one of her two hyoid bones broken.

Twila's pants were unzipped and her blouse pulled up. The investigators took a rape kit, swabbed for semen and combed for foreign hairs. The medical examiner would determine that Twila's vaginal area was reddened from intercourse.

Twila's fingernails were broken. She had put up a fight. She may have scratched her assailant and captured his DNA. Investigators clipped her nails and secured the clippings.

The body of Randy Busby lay face down on the upper bunk in the bedroom he shared with Caler. Randy was Twila's 20-year-old son. He was partially covered with a bloody blanket. He had been stabbed three times in the back. The lower bunk, where Caler slept, was free of blood. Caler had been stabbed elsewhere.

Clues abounded. There were four more bloody handprints to be found. One was a mere 18 inches off the floor on the frame of the boys' bedroom door. Two were on the back door, as if someone had left through that door while another person had left through the front.

The remaining handprint was on a garbage bag. Inside the bag, investiagtors discovered a second knife and a bloody dish towel. No fingerprints were found on the knife. Perhaps someone had attempted to clean this knife as well. If so, it would be the same modus operandi as that associated with the objects on the front porch.

The investigators also found a windbreaker on a chair in the living room. It was a DNA gold mine of blood, hairs, and sweat.

Hank Skinner, Twila's boyfriend and the only other member of the household, was nowhere to be found. He was last seen in a drunken stupor on the couch, in the living room, just a few feet from where Twila would fall into eternity.

In Part III of this series, the wheels of justice begin their grind.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hank Skinner Part III: Target Fixation

In World War II, pilots reported incidents of nearly flying into the targets they were strafing. The phenomenon was sufficiently common to deserve a name: target fixation.

Target fixation is blamed today for some motorcycle accidents in which riders mindlessly steer towards an object that fixes their attention. The phenomenon has also been used to explain instances in which skydivers fail to deploy their parachutes.

I argue that target fixation is the primary root cause for many, perhaps most false convictions. See if the phenomenon makes sense to you as an explanation for what happened in the case of Hank Skinner.

The police found Hank Skinner three hours after their arrival on the murder scene. Hank was hiding in the closet of his former AA sponsor, Andrea Reed. He was drunk. He had blood on his shirt and pants. He had a cut, apparently a knife wound, on his right hand.

At trial, Reed would testify that Hank forced his way into her home, had confessed to killing Twila, and had threatened to kill her should she attempt to call the police.

The authorities believed they had solved the case quickly. Hank Skinner was in their gun sight, and they would never look left, right, up, or down. They were fixated.

They ignored the pleas of Howard Mitchell. Mitchell explained it was impossible for Hank to have murdered Twila. Hank had been completely incapacitated, passed out on the couch next to the remains of a vodka bottle. Mitchell had tried to rouse Hank to attend a New Year's Eve party with Twila at his residence, but he could not wake Hank, much less get him to stand. And that was little more than a half-hour before the murder.

Mitchell provided the name of a more likely suspect, Robert Donnell. Donnell was Twila's uncle, a violent man with a propensity for knives, a history of choking people, and an incestuous lust for his niece. Donnell was so threatening, in fact, that Mitchell was frightened for his life by speaking of him.

Donnell had, according to Mitchell, previously attempted to rape Twila, and had that very night stalked her at the New Year's Eve party. So persistent was Donnell in his lewd advances towards Twila, she had asked Mitchell to drive her home after only a half hour at the party. Mitchell drove Twila home, returned to his party five minutes later, and realized Donnell had left soon after they did.

The investigators choose to ignore Mitchell. They did not investigate Donnell. They were fixated and they would fly this case into the ground.

They tested the bloody handprints against Hank Skinner. Hank was good for the three near the back of the house. The one on the trash bag, and presumably the one on the front storm door, belonged to someone else. Perhaps they belonged to Robert Donnell, Twila's dangerous and lecherous uncle.

It would have been mere child's play to check the prints against Donnell. He was a four-time felon, and his fingerprints were already in the system. They choose not to.

They tested but a small subset of the copious DNA evidence collected from the scene. They took a DNA profile from Twila but not from her two murdered sons. They took a DNA profile from Hank Skinner, but not from Donnell. They tested the blood found on Hank's shirt and pants, but not the vaginal swabs from the rape kit. Perhaps most shockingly, the failed to test the scrapings from Twila's broken fingernails, though Hank had no scratches on him.

The blood on Hank's shirt came from his own wound and from Twila. The blood on his pants came from himself, Twila, and Elwin. The case was a slam dunk. All that remained was a conviction and a syringe.

If they were lucky, Hank would end up with an attorney who would not insist that all the DNA and fingerprints be tested. But what were the chances of that? One in a million gazillion?

Then, as if manna from heaven, the court appointed Harold Comer to represent Hank Skinner.

Part IV, Fix of a Different Sort, follows.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hank Skinner Part IV: Fix of a Different Sort

It is nothing short of astounding that Harold Comer was assigned by the court to be Hank Skinner's lead counsel. Comer, after all, had spent a portion of his previous career attempting to throw Hank in jail rather than keep him out. In an earlier career, Harold Comer had been the elected District Attorney for Gray County, and Hank Skinner had a checkered past.

Hank's two non-violent felonies would in fact be used against him in the death-penalty phase of the trail. Comer had earlier prosecuted Hank for those very felonies, and would now have to defend him against them.

Harold Comer's transition from Hank's prosecutor to Hank's defender was -- well -- shall I say -- blemished. Yeah, that's it, blemished. It seems Comer had been run out of the District Attorney's office because he embezzled substantial quantities of drug forfeiture funds, and because he was himself addicted to drugs. One failing was undoubtedly tied to the other, and neither was of inconsequential magnitude. After he was ejected from his job, the IRS tagged him with a $90,000 bill for unreported taxes.

Comer needed to find honest work, and he needed to find it quickly. Luck was on his side: Judge M. Kent Sims had been assigned to handle the trial of Hank Skinner. That wasn't just good news, it was great news. Comer had been a close political supporter of Judge Sims, and sure enough, Sims assigned Comer to represent Hank Skinner.

That was just the break Comer needed, even though, under normal circumstances, the State of Texas didn't pay very well for defending indigent defendants. In Actual Innocence, Jim Dwyer writes "In too many cases, serving as counsel to the indigent is a fast way to join their ranks. For instance, in Mississippi, the maximum amount for non-death penalty cases is $1000 ... In certain rural sections of Texas the limit is $800."

Comer had good reason to expect he would earn somewhat more than the $800 cited by Dwyer in 2003. Hank would be tried in 2005, so there was inflation to be considered. And Palma wasn't necessarily the rural section of Texas of which Dwyer wrote. And, most significantly, Hank's case was a death penalty case. That was the best part. That would bump up the $800 figure by a fair amount.

Still, those adjustments seem inadequate to explain how Harold Comer came to be paid $86,000. It was the largest fee ever paid by Texas to a court-appointed attorney. It simply boggles the mind to think of how much they might have paid him had he defended Hank successfully.

Though to this day he claims otherwise, Harold Comer didn't really seem to give it his best shot. For example, his effort to independently investigate Robert Donnell as the likely culprit was uninspired. He hired Kirvin Roper as his private investigator.

Comer and Roper went way back. When Comer was still District Attorney, Roper worked for him, at least for the office. Comer absolutely knew that Kirvin's work wasn't top notch, because Comer had, as the DA, fired him for incompetence and embezzlement. Now Comer hired him back to check out the violent, knife-wielding, sexually-obsessed uncle.

Kirvin didn't come up with much of anything. He didn't get a copy of Donnell's fingerprints or DNA, best we can tell. He apparently didn't discover that Donnell's truck was seen outside Twila's house that night, or that Donnell repainted the truck and replaced the carpeting almost immediately after the crime. Nor does it seem he learned that Donnell had bragged of killing someone earlier in a bar fight. It's not obvious what, if anything, Kirvin brought to the party.

More significantly though, Comer failed to demand that all the DNA be tested. Hell, he didn't even ask. Nor did he demand that the handprints be tested against Donnell. He would argue later it was all part of a well-conceived strategy: he wanted to make the police look bad because they didn't do the testing voluntarily.

As you already realize, that strategy sucked.

Part V, The Trial, coming soon.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Hank Skinner Part V: The Trial

I recall from my younger days a single-panel cartoon of two scientists standing before a large chalkboard. I could tell they were scientists because they wore white lab coats and because the large chalkboard was almost completely filled with complex equations, math, and greek symbols. There was one portion of the board, however, not covered with equations. Instead, that small portion read: "And then a miracle happens."

One scientist is pointing at those words and telling the other scientist: "I think you need a little more detail right there."

When I studied the Hank Skinner trial, that cartoon came to mind. I envisioned the prosecution case as the big chalkboard filled with equations. The defense strategy was represented by reliance on a miracle, and the jury by the one scientist telling the other, in effect: "That's not going to cut it."

The prosecution presented a formidable case. Hank Skinner was absolutely in the room when Twila Busby was being murdered: he had her blood on his shirt and his pants. He was also near Elwin Caler when Elwin was being stabbed. He had Elwin's blood on his pants.

Hank also had a cut on his hand, an unintentional wound, it claimed, resulting from striking bone as he stabbed Randy Busby to death. The abrupt stop caused his hand to slip down the knife.

Hank's bloody handprint was found on the doorway to Randy's bedroom, left there after he murdered Randy.

Hank's bloody handprints were found on the back door, left there as he made his escape.

After murdering Twila, Elwin, and Randy, Hank made his way to the home of Andrea Reed, his earlier AA sponsor. There he forced his way into her home and kept her hostage for more than three hours. He admitted to the killing and threatened to kill Andrea herself if she tried to contact the police.

The police located Hank there some three hours later, hiding in a closet.

Hank's escape to Andrea's home was proof that he was not too drunk to kill. After all, Hank found his own way to Andrea's home, entered there without her knowledge, cleaned his own wound, attempted to stitch up his own wound, warned Andrea against notifying the police, and had the presence of mind to hide as the police narrowed their perimeter about him. He even admitted to the killing. Those were not the actions of an innocent person.

Hank's defense was that Hank was indeed at the murder scene, but incapacitated. His blood alcohol level was 0.21, his codeine level was three times that of a normal therapeutic dose. He simply couldn't have killed them, despite the testimony of Andrea Reed that Hank was quite capable of tasks such as breaking and entering, dressing self-inflicted wounds, holding people hostage, and hiding from the police.

Hank had also in the past injured his hand, the same hand he would have used to wield the axe handle and the knives. Testing showed that Hank had lost considerable gripping power in that hand.

Hank must have cut himself on glass from the broken light fixture when he fell down as he staggered from the house. That's how the blood must have come to be on his clothes. He was staggering out of the house, fell down, cut his hand, and got blood on his clothes.

And finally for Comer's ace in the hole. Why didn't the police test all the DNA? If the police were so confident of Hank's guilt, why didn't they test all of the DNA?

To which the jury answered: "Because you didn't force them to do so, because you knew what the answer would be."

Guilty of murder in the first degree. Penalty set as death by lethal injection.

Coming soon in Part VI of the series: Eyewitness Testimony.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hank Skinner Part VI: Eyewitness Testimony

Responding to what I have written so far, one reader commented: “If he did dress his wound, that takes away any doubt of his lucidity. And why would Andrea lie? After that read, he looks even more guilty.”

Welcome to the world of the juror. It’s a world in which opponents of an ultimate-stakes face-off spoonfeed you morsels of well-massaged information, a world of appetizers but no main course, a world of thirteen-line sonnets. You are one of the twelve people least-informed about the tragedy just laid bare before you. You are nonetheless expected to assume lead role for the final act.

Though eyewitnesses tend to be held in high-regard by jurors, they are responsible for more than 75% of all wrongful convictions. Recent studies by The Innocence Project and numerous other organizations simply re-enforce a phenomenon well-documented more than a century ago. Hugo Munsterberg  wrote of the issue in his 1907 work “On the Witness Stand.”

It is a wise juror that weighs eyewitness testimony as it weighs all other testimony: with a skeptical eye.

After the trial, well after the trial, Andrea Reed recanted her testimony. She claimed she lied to the police that night and lied to the jury during the trial.  I’ll defer to her words. I’ll allow her to tell you why she might have had reason to lie.

Dated, September 27, 1997
Gray County, Texas

My name is Andrea Joyce Reed. The attorney who represents Henry Skinner gave me a copy of the written statement that I made to Officer Connie Ogle on January 1, 1994, and the transcript of my testimony at Hank's trial for capital murder in Fort Worth on March 9, 1995. I carefully read both of these documents before I signed this affidavit. I swear that all of the statements in the affidavit are true.

Several of the things that I said in my written statement to Ogle and my trial testimony are false. I lied because of implied threats and I was intimidated by Officer Katie Gerhardt and the district attorney's investigator, Bill McMinn.

This is what really happened. At about midnight on the night of December 31, 1993 , I was in the bedroom of my trailer house at 705 Henry St. in Pampa, Texas, with my daughter, Jessica, and son, Kris, when I heard someone pounding on the wall. I asked the person to identify himself and I heard a voice that I recognized as Hank shouting, “Andy, I’m hurt. Please let me in" or words to that effect. At first, I told Hank to leave and threatened to call the police if he did not do so. Hank was an old friend, but I did not associate with him because he was an alcoholic and drug user.

When I told Hank to leave, he said that he had been shot and pleaded with me to help him. I turned on my porch light and opened the front door so that I could see him. Hank had a lot of blood on him. I decided to help him because I felt sorry for him. I went back into the house, put my dog in the bedroom with my children, closed the door to that room and went outside again. Hank was still standing in the front yard. I invited him to come into the house. He stumbled and fell over backwards when he tried to climb up the porch stairs. I caught him or helped him to get up. He had to lean on my arm as we walked into the house. He was with me for over three hours before he was arrested.

Very shortly after Hank was taken into custody, I heard Officer Katie Gerhardt tell one of my curious neighbors that he could not enter my house because it was "a triple homicide crime scene." I assumed that this meant that Hank was accused of murdering three people. I did not understand how my house could be a crime scene because no crime was committed there, but I feared that the police believed that I was involved in the offense.

My fear of being falsely accused increased when McMinn and Gerhardt told me that they believed that Hank had an accomplice and asked me where that person was. I told them I did not know what they were talking about, but they apparently did not believe me because they kept asking the same question. Gerhardt finally told me that I could be charged with being an accessory after the fact if I did not cooperate with them. I did not understand why she made that threat because I believed that I was cooperating .

I told my first lie when Gerhardt and McMinn asked me how Hank got into my house. I was afraid to admit that I helped him inside because I did not want to say anything that could later be used to suggest that I offered a murderer a place to hide from the police who were trying to arrest him. I told McMinn and Gerhardt that he entered the house without my consent and I did not know how. Gerhardt said that she did not believe me. She asked me why I did not try to leave my house and get help. I told her that I did not want to leave my kids alone with Hank. She warned me that I could be charged with a crime if I invited him into my house knowing that the police were trying to arrest him.

My written statement to Ogle left the false impression that I only treated Hank's wounded hand because he entered my house against my will and threatened to kill me. I did not admit that I invited him in because I was afraid that the police would arrest me for helping a wanted man.

I falsely claimed in my written statement that Hank warned me, "don't call anyone or I'll kill you" when he saw me pick up the telephone. Hank did tell me not to call anyone, but he did not threaten to kill me.

I falsely claimed in my written statement that I believed that Hank was capable of killing me because of his intoxicated condition. The truth is that he was much too drunk or high on drugs to physically carry out such a threat. I know what Hank is capable of doing when he is intoxicated because I saw him in that condition many times. When he arrived at my house, he was too intoxicated to strangle Twila Busby until her neck broke, repeatedly hit her on the head with an ax and precisely stab her two sons to death .

I also lied in my written statement about two small details because I did not want the police to believe that I voluntarily did anything for Hank. I said that Hank took his shirt off and hung it over a chair in my living room. The truth is that I helped him remove his shirt and I put it on the chair. I said that Hank washed blood off of his watch. The truth is that I washed off the blood.

When I described in my written statement how Hank said that he thought that he tried to kick Twila to death because he found her in bed with her ex-husband, I left out the fact that Hank gave me a ridiculous description of Twila's ex-husband that did not fit him at all. This is one of the reasons why I believe that his statement about kicking Twila to death was just a drunken fantasy like the other violent stories that he told me to explain how he was injured.

I informed Ogle that I did not want my daughter, Jessica, to be a witness because it would be a traumatic experience for her. Ogle told me that it was up to the district attorney. I was very upset when I received a letter from John Mann notifying me that Jessica would be subpoenaed as a witness. I sent her out of town to stay with a relative shortly after I received that letter. McMinn warned me that I would be arrested if I did not tell him where she was. I told McMinn that it was his job to find his witnesses -- not mine. McMinn finally promised that my daughter would not have to be a witness if I testified "as instructed by John Mann."

When I arrived in Ft. Worth for the trial, Gerhardt and McMinn told me that I could not go anywhere or do anything without a police officer or prosecutor being present. I was not allowed to eat alone in a restaurant, receive visitors at my hotel, make phone calls or take a walk by myself. Gerhardt even insisted we share a room. I felt like a prisoner. I was told that all of this was done for my own safety, but that explanation made no sense because Hank was in jail and no one had threatened me. I was more afraid of the cops who were supposedly protecting me than I was of Hank on the night of the murder.

Shortly before I testified at the trial, Assistant District Attorney Tracy Blades gave me a document in a clear plastic folder and told me, "read it. This is your part. She explained that the document was a "condensed" version of my statement to Ogle. It placed several things that I said way out of context, but I cannot recall what they were.

I tried to follow the script that Blades gave me because that is what I was instructed to do and I still wasn’t sure they (Law) would leave my daughter alone, but I did not believe my testimony was going to be helpful to the State. I did not understand how anything that Hank did or said at my house on the
night of the murders could possibly show whether he was guilty or innocent.

When Mann asked me how Hank was able to get in to my house after I told him to leave, I falsely answered, "I don't even know." I repeated what I told the police on the night of the murder because I was afraid to admit that I lied to them and I did not believe that the truth could make a difference. I lied again for the same reason when Mann asked me what Hank did with his shirt and watch.

I falsely testified that Hank walked to the bathroom by himself when I went to make a telephone call because I was still afraid to admit that I did any thing to help him. The truth is that I had to help Hank walk from the kitchen to the bathroom before I went to make the call because he was so intoxicated that he could not keep his balance.

I falsely testified that Hank warned me that he would kill me if I tried to call anyone. I lied to the jury about that threat because I said the same thing in my written statement to Ogle and I was afraid to admit that it was false. The truth is that Hank told me not to make a call without threatening to kill me.

I gave the jury the false impression that Hank’s statements about finding Twila in bed with her ex-husband and killing her were not related to each other. The truth is that Hank said that he thought he tried to kick Twila to death because he found her in bed with her ex-husband. The questions that John Mann asked me did not allow me to explain this to the jury.

I falsely testified that out of all of the stories that Hank told me on the night of the murder, the only one that he made me swear not to reveal was his story about kicking Twila to death. The truth is that he swore me to secrecy or made me promise not to tell each time that he gave me a different story about what happened.

I am not sure why I lied about this on the witness stand, but I may have repeated what was in the condensed version of my statement to Ogle that Blades prepared for me. It is also possible that I gave the answer that I thought John Mann wanted to hear.

After Hank was sentenced to death, I read news stories about the trial and began to understand the importance of my testimony. The lies that I told to protect myself made it appear as if Hank broke into my house, held me hostage and confessed to the murders. The truth is that I invited a harmless drunk into my house and listened to three hours of meaningless gibberish. I have no idea who killed Twila Busby and her sons, but I pray that I get another chance to tell the truth about what I do know to a jury because I do not want to be responsible for the execution of a man who may be innocent .

Andrea Joyce Reed

Here’s the deal with recantations. They don’t work. 

I’m aware of plenty of people who have recanted their trial testimony.  I’m not aware, however, of a single recantation which has, by itself, led to the release of the defendant / prisoner.  Hopefully someone will inform me of a counter-example to prove me wrong.

In any case, we now know with confidence that Andrea Reed will lie if circumstances so dictate. Either she lied to the police and perjured herself during trial, or she lied when she recanted her testimony. Unfortunately, it happens all the time. Andrea’s situation provides but one more substantiating example for my skeptical juror rule-of-thumb: trust no one.

Trust not the witness, the attorneys, or even the judge. They will lie, muddle, and confuse. All of them will. They will obfuscate, prevaricate, orate, and bloviate. They will attempt to manipulate you. Your only defense  is to remain skeptical of them all. Rely not on their oration and special pleading. Rely instead on the evidence, the physical evidence, and examine that with a jaundiced eye.

Part VII, The Physical Evidence, follows.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Hank Skinner Part VII: The Physical Evidence

Assuming Andrea Reed was truthful during her recantation, the jury that convicted Hank Skinner and sentenced him to death did not know that Hank was too inebriated to climb a few stairs or to remove his own shirt. Nor did they know that the police, early on, suspected another person was involved in killing Twila, Elwin, and Randy.

It’s easy to understand why the police thought someone else was involved. There were bloody bootprints leading to the front door, though Hank seemingly went out the back. And the bootprints were size 11-12, way too large for Hank Skinner. Hank stands 5’ 9” and weighs 140 pounds. His shoe size is 9½. He was found wearing socks that night, but no shoes. He owned no boots, nor were any found.

Elwin, on the other hand, was a large person, and he apparently left through the front door, mortally wounded. But he was found wearing only a pair a bloody underpants. It seemed likely, therefore, that the boot prints were made by someone other than Hank or Elwin. Perhaps they were placed there by the person who killed three people that night.

Also found were bloody handprints on both the front and back doors. It was unlikely that Hank went out both doors. Hank’s handprints were on the back door, and suggested Hank went out that way. The handprint on the front storm door, however -- well, that’s another story. The investigators removed the glass pane and placed it in the sheriff’s evidence vault for safe-keeping. Someone later scraped the handprint off the glass while the pane was under control of the sheriff. It is not generally known, to this day, to whom that print belonged.

There was also the bloody X-LG windbreaker found laying across a chair just feet from where Twila fell. It was a DNA gold-mine of blood, hairs, and sweat. The state would test none of it though, nor would they allow anyone else to test it. Instead, they would have Twila’s mother testify in trial that her daughter liked to wear over-sized coats. That's way better than testing the DNA of the sweat on the windbreaker.

The center of Hank’s defense seemed to be that Hank was so smashed out of his mind that he couldn’t possibly have committed the crime. Not only did Andrea’s testimony destroy that defense, it tainted Hank as a liar. It gave the jury carte blanche for ignoring every thing Hank or his attorney had to say. If Hank was willing to lie about the foundation of his defense, the jurors would realize, then he would lie about anything big or small.

Had I been advising Hank’s defense team, I would suggested the focus of the defense should be on the other piece of evidence that suggested someone else was there that night. I would have told them to focus on the handprint found on the trash bag. That print was tested, and it did not belong to Hank. That print was Hank’s one best hope to avoid the needle.

Found inside the trash bag were a knife and a bloody dish towel. The dish towel had probably been used to clean the prints from the knife, since none were found there. Whoever put the items in the trash bag left his print on the bag. It wasn't Hank's handprint on the bag, and it wasn't Hank who that night wiped down the knife with the dish towel.

Found on the front porch were a second knife and some bloody gauze. Someone wiped down that second knife with the gauze. That’s the same modus operandi as for those items in the trash bag, the bag with the handprint that did not belong to Hank Skinner.

The items on the front porch were clearly not left by the person who went out the back door; they were left instead by the person who went out the front. That was the same person who left the now-missing bloody handprint on the front storm door; the same person who left the too-large-for-Hank bootprints leading to the front door; the same person who left the not-Hank-Skinner handprint on the trash bag, that contained the towel that wiped the knife that stabbed the victim. And that person wasn't Hank Skinner.

It all led back to the handprint on the trash bag. That print did not then and does not now belong to Hank Skinner.

On to Part VIII: To Test or Not To Test.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hank Skinner Part VIII -- To Test or Not To Test

The exact quote stuck through in the post below came from a Hank Skinner post.  I have since learned the quote was not exact, as indicated by his quotation marks, rather that it was paraphrased.  The error is mine for using the quote prior to substantiating it. -- TSJ

There was so much DNA evidence available in the Hank Skinner case that it is easy to lose track of it all. Even an expensive, colorful, professionally generated graphic would be inadequate to tell all there is to tell. In this part of the Hank Skinner story, I will attempt to remedy the problem somewhat.


I begin by summarizing the DNA evidence presented at the trial of Hank Skinner.

Twila’s blood was found on Hank’s shirt and pants. The prosecution argued that it came to be there as Hank bludgeoned Twila with the axe handle, after first having strangled her. The defense claimed it came to be there as Hank fell to the floor while trying to rise from a drunken stupor, thereby coming in contact with Twila’s blood, either on her person or on the floor.

Twila’s blood was found also on Elwin. In this case, the prosecution did not argue that it came to be there as Elwin bludgeoned Twila. The defense argued that Elwin must have been standing in the living room near his mother as she was being bludgeoned. They argued further that a stuporous Hank would have been unable to kill either of them, much less both of them.

Elwin’s blood was found on Hank’s pants. The prosecution argued that it came to be there as Hank stabbed Elwin while they were in the bedroom. The defense argued that it came to be there as Hank fell to the floor while trying to rise from a drunken stupor, thereby coming in contact with Elwin’s blood. Alternatively, they argued the blood came to be there as Elwin attempted to roust Hank from his slumber and help him from the house.

Randy’s blood was found on the blanket that partially covered him. The prosecution argued that it came to be there as Hank stabbed Randy three times in the back while Randy lay on the top bunk. They argued further that Hank cut himself while stabbing Randy, that the knife hit bone and Hank’s hand slid down the knife. That is presumably why they tested the blood on the blanket, expecting to find Hank’s blood there. The absence of Hank’s blood did not deter them from their pursuit.

The hairs found on Randy’s blanket, back, and cheek came from Randy himself. Once again, the prosecution presumably expected them to belong to Hank. They did not.

The handprints near the doorway of the boys' bedroom came from Hank. The print was only eighteen inches above the floor. The prosecution argued that it came to be there after Hank stabbed Randy and cut his hand in the process, and after Elwin tackled Hank as Hank was leaving the bedroom. The defense argued that the blood came to be there as Hank stumbled while trying to make his way out the back door. The defense argued further that Hank had cut his hand on the broken light fixture glass when he fell to the floor in his drunken stupor. Alternatively, his appellate counsel would argue that Hank might have been wounded by the same person who killed the others in the household.

The the handprints on the back door came from Hank. The defense argues that Hank left them there as he exited the house in a stuporous state. The prints on the back door leave unexplained the evidence that the killer exited via the front door.


After the trial, DA John Mann (Lynn Switzer’s predecessor, once removed) succumbed to public pressure and sent additional DNA material to GeneScreen for testing. He did so to get people to “shut up” and to “put a few more nails” in Hank’s coffin.

The DNA from the two hairs clutched in Twila’s hand came from an unknown male, possibly a male relative of Twila. This finding posed severe problems for Mann, since he had earlier claimed they definitely “came from the head of her assailant as Twila yanked out his hair during the struggle for her life which she ultimately lost.” Mann dealt with the awkward results by lying about them. He ran a 7-month smear campaign against Hank claiming the testing showed the hairs came from Hank Skinner. Only after Mann left office did the DNA lab issue a written report. That report absolutely confirmed Hank to be excluded as the contributor of those hairs clutched in Twila’s hand. Because Mann had cleverly provided comparative DNA samples only from Hank Skinner and Twila Busby, the results could not prove or disprove the possible male relative to be Twila’s predatory uncle, Robert Donnell.

Blood found on the gauze apparently used to wipe fingerprints from the front porch knife excluded both Hank Skinner and Twila Busby as donors.

Blood found on a cassette tape excluded both Hank Skinner and Twila Busby as donors.

Other hairs sent for testing excluded Hank Skinner as the donor, but did not exclude Twila or a relative of Twila’s as potential donors.

The swab from the rape kit was sent for testing along with the other material in this group. The results of that testing were not included along with the other results. The location of the rape kit evidence is now being kept secret from Hank’s defense team and from the public. It is possible, indeed likely, that results from the kit excluded Hank Skinner and are still being suppressed, even as Hank’s execution nears.

The fingernail material was sent for testing along with the other material in this group. The results of that testing were not included along with the other results. The location of the broken fingernails and associated DNA evidence is now being kept secret from Hank’s defense team and from the public. It is possible, indeed likely, that the results from the fingernail scrapings excluded Hank Skinner and are still being suppressed, even as Hank’s execution nears.

The broken fingernails nonetheless exculpate Hank Skinner. It is likely Twila broke them as she fought for her life, possibly as she clawed at her assailant's head and came away with several of his hairs in her grasp. We don’t need the DNA from the broken fingernails to tell us they weren’t broken while clawing Hank. He had no scratches on him when he was arrested for her murder.


Despite all the DNA material tested both before and after the trial, there remains still to this day substantial DNA material to be tested.

The blood, hairs, and sweat from the windbreaker resting just a few feet from Twila’s body have not been tested.

The blood from the handprint left on the front storm door has not been tested, and may never be tested. The police removed that pane from the storm door, covered the print with firm paper taped around the edges, and stored that pane in the Sheriff’s evidence vault. While under the control of the sheriff, someone scraped the handprint from the pane.

The dish towel from the from the trash bag was not tested, despite a possible blood stain on that towel. It’s possible the towel was used to wipe the fingerprints from the knife which was found in the same trash bag. That’s the trash bag that had the handprint that did not belong to Hank Skinner.

The blood on the knife in the trash bag was not tested, though it is likely that knife was the one used to stab both Randy Busby and Elwin Caler. That knife was found in the trash bag that had the handprint that did not belong to Hank Skinner.

The knife found on the front porch was not tested for the presence of blood. It appeared to have none. It seems not to be the murder weapon. That suggests that the blood on the gauze that was apparently used to wipe the prints from the knife originated elsewhere, possibly from the killer.

Most significantly, no DNA sample was ever taken from Robert Donnell. The police never requested a saliva, blood, or semen sample from Twila's maternal uncle.

In Part IX of this X part series: we'll take a closer look at Uncle Robert.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hank Skinner Part IX: Uncle Robert

Howard Mitchell held a New Years Eve party on the night of the murder. He picked Twila up at her home and drove her to the party. The two of them left Hank behind because he was out cold. Mitchell had been unable to rouse him, even after efforts to physically lift him from the couch.

Mitchell returned Twila to her house soon after she arrived at his party because she was being harassed by none other than her predatory uncle Robert Donnell.

In September of 1994, nine months after the murder and six months before the trial, Howard Mitchell was interviewed by Bill McMinn, an investigator from the DA’s office. Below are excerpts from that interview.


Well, we call him Uncle Robert. His name is Robert Duvall [Donnell], I think something like that.

Well, according to my daughter, she said [he left] right after I took Twila home. … He’s real quick tempered and stuff, you know, so I really didn’t hang around with him or nothing. You know, I’d be nice to him, he’s nice to me and all that .

He had … this girl named California Kim. … Him and her got in some kind of drug deal where she was supposed to buy some drugs, took him $350.00 … He wind up in an empty handed deal and he was over at my house one time and he grabbed her by the throat, slammed her up against the wall and said, “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch, and she was pregnant, you know. And we stopped him, you know, talking and stuff.

And then Doug and this Uncle Robert and Sherry, I don’t know her last name, but they was out at the lake. … Well, Doug, he gets drunk and passes out. Sherry, she was passed out too. But anyway, she wakes up and he’s … got her pants off and trying to get her panties off and she got to kicking and screaming and she woke Doug up, you know. And so Doug talked him out of that bullshit, you know.

And then later on, why he come to town and he stuck a knife in Doug’s stomach, like that, and said, I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch, and then he got it up to his throat and said, I’ll cut your fucking head off. Now that’s strictly confidential, because Doug told me don’t ever tell nobody, but to me.

I’m talking about a man’s life, you know. I’m talking about Hank’s life. I don’t like Hank, you know what I mean? I don’t really dislike him, but I’m not -- we’re not compadres or none of that shit, you know. But I just don’t, my conscience won’t let me keep my mouth shut, you know. I don’t want to see nobody killed that didn’t do it, you know.

I told a detective that, I sure did. I told Harold Comer that. And that’s the truth, too. I’ll take a lie detector test or anything else on it, you know.

I don’t like being involved in none of this shit, you know what I mean?

All I’m doing really basically is I think the man they got [Hank Skinner] is innocent and the other guy [Uncle Robert] is guilty. I really believe that.

I believe this much. If he [Uncle Robert] finds out I said anything like I said, he’s going to come over here and try to kill me and I ain’t got a goddamn gun or nothing else.

And I could be wrong, you know. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.


McMinn, the DA investigator was surprised by what he had learned: “Well that’s the kind of information we didn’t have, you know.” He informed Mitchell that he would be speaking with Donnell: “I’m going to have to talk to him, but I sure won’t tell him where my information came from, but I’m going to have to talk to him. I sure am.”

If McMinn ever talked to Donnell, that interview has been suppressed along with so much other evidence in this case.

The trial took place in March of 1995. The defense introduced evidence that Donnell was a heavy-set ex-convict with a hot temper; that he had sexually molested a girl; that he had grabbed a pregnant woman by the throat; that he usually kept a knife in the trunk of his car; that he became drunk at the party.

Mitchell testified that he "sensed that [Donnell] would be a danger" because he had "a certain kind of hate" in his eyes. Donnell followed Twila around as if he was stalking her and made crude sexual remarks, even though Twila was his own niece. Twila became agitated. Within a half hour of her arrival at the party, she asked Mitchell to take her home.

He testified that Twila was "fidgety and worried" when he dropped her off in front of her house at about 11:00 to 11:15 p.m. Twila got out of his car and walked to her front door without any assistance. When Mitchell returned home to his party, Donnell was no longer there.

Neither the police, nor the DA, nor the defense investigated Donnell with any great interest. Critical exculpatory evidence was never presented in Skinner’s defense.

Two and a half years after the trial, in September 1997, Howard Mitchell filed the following affidavit.


I came to know Twila’s uncle, Bob Donnell, when he moved to Pampa a few years before Twila was killed. He showed up at my house every once in a while. I had seen him get violent with people and he always carried a knife. I pretty much tried to stay away from Bob Donnell.

Twila told me about problems she had with Bob Donnell. About four months before she was killed, Twila told me Bob Donnell had been making sexual advance towards her and that he had even tried to rape her. I gave this information to the investigator who work for Hank Skinner’s trial attorneys. She told me this several times.

It’s not clear why Mitchell only remembered to reveal this information almost four years after the murder. It seems that Mitchell tended to enhance his memory as time went on. His testimony at trial, for example, included considerably more detail that he included in his interview with the DA investigator. In fact, in that interview when asked if Donnell and Twila had any problems at the party, Mitchell replied: “Not that I noticed. … I wasn’t paying that much attention.”

On the other hand, Mitchell’s story about Donnell’s attempted rape of a woman named Sherry was later confirmed by Cliff Carpenter, an investigator for Skinner’s appellate team. I quote below from his report of February 2001.


I have spoken with Willie Mae Gardner. Donnell's widow, who told me that Donnell occasionally talked about having killed a man during a pool hall fight in a small town near Oklahoma City. On some of these occasions, Donnell showed Gardner a scar of what he said was a knife wound from the fight.

I have also spoken with Deborah Ellis, the granddaughter of Willie Mae Gardner, who told me that she witnessed Donnell "choke" and "push around" Gardner numerous times.

I spoke with Jimmy Hayes, a close acquaintance of Donnell. Hayes told me that Donnell always carried a large knife either on his person or in his pickup truck. Hayes also told me that once Donnell had attempted to slash Hayes with the knife. and cut Hayes' shirt but did not injure him. I have obtained the shirt, which has a cut across the left breast pocket.

Hayes also stated that on several occasions, Twila Busby called him to come over to her house to protect her because she was as afraid of Donnell. Hayes' wife Dorinda confirmed this.

I have spoken to Sherry Barnette, who told me that summer before the murders of Twila Busby, Randy Busby, and Elwin Caler, Donnell attempted to rape her at a lake near Pampa. During the assault, Donnell tried to "choke her down." Barnette also said that she had been at Twila Busby's house on several occasions when Busby bad to run Donnell off because of his temper.

According to Willie Mae Gardner, on the night of the murders Donnell arrived home very late or in the early morning hours. The police came to Donnell's home to notify him of the deaths. Gardner recalled that the police knocked at the door at approximately 6 a.m. the morning after the murders, and Donnell said he would go see who was there. He returned. few minutes later and stated Twila and the boys had been killed. Gardner specifically recalled that Donnell was emotionless when he conveyed this news.

According to Willie Mae Gardner, Donnell repainted his pickup truck within a week of the murders. The truck had been white and Donnell painted it blue.

According to Deborah Ellis, within a week after the murders. Donnell also thoroughly cleaned out the interior of his pickup truck. He took out the interior carpet from the floorboard. and thoroughly washed. the plastic seat covers and interior of the truck with a water hose. This was unusual, as, according to Willie Mae Gardner, Donnell was a man who had to be told to take a bath.


I doubt that even the damning information revealed in Carpenter’s report, had it been revealed during the trial, would have saved Skinner. Assuming Donnell killed Twila and her sons, the defense needed to place him at the crime scene. Had they done that, the jury would likely have set Skinner free.

Harold Comer, Skinner’s over-priced and under-motivated attorney, made no effort to place Donnell at the murder scene, though he had obvious opportunity to do so. He could have had tested the blood, hair, and sweat left at the scene against Donnell’s DNA.

Even if he had been unable to obtain a sample of Donnell’s DNA, he could have determined if the DNA evidence was consistent with a male, maternal relative of Twila. That in fact happened after the trial. The hairs found clasped in Twila’s hand, the hairs pronounced by the DA to belong to the killer, turned out to come from a male, maternal relative of Twila. They did not come from Hank Skinner. According to the standard set by the DA before the testing, those hairs exonerated Hank Skinner.

Even in the absence of testing any DNA, the defense could have compared prints found on the trash bag with those of Robert Donnell. He wouldn't have even needed Donnell's permission. Donnell’s prints were already on file due to his frequent encounters with the law. That trash bag contained the knife with the blood on it, and a bloody dish towel probably used to wipe prints from the knife. Whoever put the knife and dish towel in that trash bag left his signature behind in the form of hand and fingerprints.

It is inconceivable that no one has ever compared the prints from that trash bag against those of Robert Donnell. The authorities certainly understood the significance of those prints. They compared the prints against those of Hank Skinner, only to be surprised they did not match. Are we to believe they didn’t take the few minutes necessary to check them against those of a man identified by several people as the likely killer?

Are we to believe that?

And finally, the tenth and final part of this series: The End.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hank Skinner Part X: The End

Compare the two photos below.  They are nearly identical. Nearly.
The student of history will recognize the photos to be of Vladimir Lenin surrounded by supporters and random members of the proletariat. That’s Lenin in the center. He’s wearing the dark coat that extends to the bottom of the photo.

Even a casual observer will realize that the second photo is simply an altered version of the first. Several people have been removed. Working counter-clockwise from Lenin’s head, the following people in the first photo are missing from the second: the man in the upper left corner with the pronounced full-facial beard and moustache; the man in the lower right corner with the dark eyes and dark beard; and the man just to the right of Lenin, the one with the hat and glasses, the one saluting.

I can’t identify either of the first two people who have gone missing. The third person, the one saluting, is Leon Trotsky. He criticized Stalin’s leadership, was exiled to Mexico, assassinated there, and removed from the Soviet’s official history.

The two photos are not oddities. They are not unusual, nor are they examples unique to the Soviet Union. Oppressive states sustain themselves in part by controlling information. People disappear from photos as they disappear from life; data are altered; inconvenient results suppressed or destroyed.

Even states that consider themselves enlightened, as do they all, fall victim to the temptations of controlling information.

I find it inconceivable that the prints lifted from a trash bag, containing a bloody knife, found at a murder scene, would not automatically be compared against state and federal fingerprint databases. I find it simply inconceivable.

I find it suspicious that a rape kit sent for post-conviction DNA testing, sent “to put a few more nails in that man’s coffin,” would simply disappear. As did the man with the full-facial beard.

I find it too convenient that broken fingernail clippings sent for post-conviction DNA testing, sent because John Mann “knew that bastard was guilty”, would simply vanish. As did the man with the dark eyes.

I find it deplorable that the state of Texas would refuse to reveal even the location of that rape kit and those fingernail clippings, to refuse even to acknowledge their very existence.

I find it reprehensible that the state of Texas, via its representative John Mann, would for seven months inform its citizenry that the hairs found clutched in Twila Busby’s lifeless hand justified its intent to kill Hank Skinner, when in fact that very evidence exonerated him.

And I find it execrable that those who have the power to intervene refuse to do so, refuse to insist that the DNA be tested and the fingerprints be compared prior to the execution of one of their own.