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.