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.

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