Tuesday, March 2, 2010


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 manipulating information.


More than five years after the conviction of Hank Skinner, District Attorney John Mann sent previously-untested DNA samples from the case to GeneScreen laboratory for testing. The fourteen samples included a rape kit, fingernail clippings, a bloody cassette tape, a bloody piece of gauze, a bloody notebook, and multiple hairs. Of particular note were two hairs found clutched in Twila Busby’s right hand.

Before the testing, John Mann declared those hairs to have come from the person who murdered Twila Busby. At the time, he believed Hank Skinner to be the murderer. “The D.A. said late last week he felt certain the test will prove the hair in Twila’s hand is Skinner’s which he says convinces him that she fought with him for her life.”

But when tested, DNA results from both those hairs excluded Hank Skinner as the donor. One hair was matched to Twila Busby herself. The second was matched to an unknown male, possibly a maternal relative. Neither hair came from Hank Skinner. In fact, none of the items tested included Hank Skinner as a possible donor.

By Mr. Mann's own assessment, the DNA tests factually exonerated Hank Skinner.

When DNA testing factually exonerates a convicted person, the standard response, and the only reasonable response, is to grant that person a new trial or dismiss the charges completely. Inconceivably, in this case the state of Texas decided instead to proceed with Hank Skinner's execution. The troublesome test results would be no great impediment. They would simply disappear, as if they were nothing more than inconvenient dissenters in a grainy photo.


After declaring he would do "whatever it took" to "shut up" those who doubted Skinner's guilt, John Mann spent the final seven months of his term suppressing and lying about the results of the DNA tests he personally approved. Rather than release the results to the public, he launched a smear campaign against the man he had unintentionally exonerated.  "Hairs found in the hand of murder victim Twila Busby belonged to Henry Watkins Skinner," John Mann bloviated. "In all the sampling," he prevaricated, "there has been no DNA from a third person."

Equally insidious is the disappearance of the rape kit and the fingernail clippings. Even after John Mann's departure from office, even after the results for the other items were finally released, the results from the rape kit and fingernail clippings went unreported. To this day, the state of Texas refuses to make those results public. To this day, the state of Texas refuses to reveal the physical location of the rape kit and fingernail clippings. It refuses even to acknowledge their very existence.

As Texas prepares to execute Hank Skinner just days from now, its leaders and representatives present us an altered portrait. A rape kit that once would cause us to "shut up" has gone missing. Fingernail clippings that once would "put a few more nails in that man's coffin" have vanished. A hair pulled from the head of the killer is dismissed with a shrug and a few unabashed lies.

We are supposed to look upon their work and remain silent.


We at The Skeptical Juror declare Hank Skinner to be facutally exonerated. We base our declaration on the hair clutched in Twila Busby's right hand, on the testing that excluded Hank Skinner as the donor of that hair, and on District Attorney John Mann's pronouncement that Twila Busby pulled that hair from her killer during the final struggle of her life.

We submit that the execution of Hank Skinner, should it be now be allowed to proceed, will indelibly tarnish the reputation of the great state of Texas, and will bring infamy upon all those who could have stopped the execution but elected instead to stand silent.

We call upon innocence projects throughout our country, and throughout Texas in particular, to review the circumstances of the impending Hank Skinner execution, and to make a public pronouncement of their own should they too find Hank Skinner to be factually exonerated.

While the rape kit and fingernail clippings were not tested (as I correctly reported), they have not gone missing (as I incorrectly reported). I am informed that the State of Texas has control of that evidence, and that the evidence is secure and viable for testing.