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.