Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Impending Execution of Hank Skinner: Open Deliberation

Hank Skinner sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Texas. His case is one of the most factually and legally complicated cases I have encountered so far. In this post, I will begin with the State's case for Skinner's guilt from his original appellate decision Skinner v. State (1997).
Appellant raises twenty-one points of error, including a challenge to the legal sufficiency of the evidence to support the conviction. We will address the points in the approximate order in which they are raised. Review of the facts in the light most favorable to the verdict is necessary.

Appellant lived with his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two mentally-retarded sons, 22-year-old Elwin Caler and 20-year-old Randy Busby. Around 9:30 on the evening of December 31, 1993, Twila and appellant called a friend of Twila's, Howard Mitchell, and told him they wanted to go to his New Year's party, but needed a ride there. Between 10:15 and 10:30 p.m., when Mitchell went to pick up the pair, he found appellant passed out on the couch and was unable to wake him. Apparently, appellant had been drinking.

Leaving appellant in his stupor, Twila and Mitchell went to Mitchell's trailer where a party was in progress. Twila was followed around at the party by her drunken uncle who made rude sexual advances toward her and generally agitated her until she asked Mitchell to take her home. Mitchell drove Twila home between 11:00 and 11:15 p.m., and left.

At midnight, Police Officer Fred Courtney was dispatched to investigate a stabbing at an address located across the alley from appellant's residence. He arrived to find Elwin Caler sitting on the porch of a neighbor's house with a blanket pressed against his side. Elwin had a mortal stab wound under his left arm and superficial wounds to his right hand and stomach. He was taken to the hospital where he died at 12:45 a.m..

Four blocks away, also at midnight, appellant knocked at the door of his former girlfriend, Andrea Reed. Reed asked appellant to leave, but he entered the house and told her that she had to help him because he had been stabbed and shot. Appellant's shirt and pants had a great deal of blood on them. Appellant removed his shirt, but Reed could find no injuries except for a bleeding cut in the palm of his right hand, which she agreed to suture.

Reed and appellant conversed for almost three hours during which time appellant made a series of inconsistent statements about the cause of and events surrounding his injury. At one point Reed attempted to leave the room to call the police, but appellant stopped her and threatened to kill her. Reed told him she was going to call Twila to ask her what happened and appellant claimed that he caught Twila in bed with her ex-husband and fought with him. Eventually, appellant offered to tell Reed what really happened if she would promise not to reveal it to anyone. When Reed promised not to tell, appellant stated that he thought he had kicked Twila to death.

While appellant was at Reed's house, the police were investigating Elwin's stabbing. As they approached the house where Elwin lived with his mother, brother, and appellant, the police noticed a trail of blood spots on the ground running from the front porch to the fence line. There was a blood smear on the glass storm door and a knife on the front porch. Upon entering the residence, the police found Twila's dead body on the living room floor. It was later determined that she had been strangled into unconsciousness and subsequently beaten at least fourteen times about the face and head with a club. An ax handle stained with blood and hair was leaning against the couch near her body and a black plastic trash bag containing a knife and a towel with wet brownish stains on it was laying between the couch and the coffee table.

Officer Morse Burroughs proceeded to the bedroom where Elwin and Randy usually slept in bunk beds. He found Randy's dead body laying face down on the upper bunk, covered by a blood spotted blanket. Randy had been stabbed in the back three times. A door leading out of the bedroom and into a utility room yielded further evidence. Burroughs noticed a bloody handprint located about 24 inches off the floor on the frame of this door. He also noted a bloody handprint on the door knob of the door leading from the kitchen to the utility room and a handprint on the knob of the door exiting from the utility room into the backyard.

The police arrested appellant at Reed's house at approximately 3:00 a.m.. They found him standing in a closet wearing blood-stained socks and blood-stained blue jeans. He appeared intoxicated. A toxicological test on a blood sample appellant voluntarily provided at 5:48 a.m. showed appellant to have 0.11 milligrams of codeine per liter of blood and a blood alcohol level of 0.11 percent. Tests on the blood on appellant's clothing was found to belong to Twila and Elwin. In a tape-recorded statement to the police, appellant claimed to remember little of what happened on the night of the murders after he fell asleep on the couch. Autopsy evidence showed all of the murders to have been committed in the same general time frame.

In his first point of error, appellant claims the evidence is legally insufficient to support the verdict that he killed three people during the same criminal transaction. Appellant concedes that the evidence is sufficient to prove that appellant killed both Twila and Elwin. He also concedes that appellant left the bloody handprints

In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, this Court views all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict to determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The physical evidence connected appellant to the murders of two of the victims. Appellant also stated that he thought he had killed Twila. All three victims lived in the same house, and all three were apparently home with appellant around the time of the murders. No evidence other than appellant's own statement indicates that anyone else was in the residence during the time of the murders. Also, a trail of blood spots ran from the front porch of the residence to the fence line and only one victim was found outside of the house. Given the totality of the evidence, it was rational for a juror to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant killed all three of the victims during the same criminal transaction. Point of error one is overruled.
I now boldy excerpt most of an article from the Huffington Post by David Protess.
Hank Skinner ... has been on death row in Texas since 1995 for the murders of his girlfriend and her two adult sons in their Panhandle home. He has steadfastly professed his innocence. In recent years, the State's star witness recanted her testimony to my journalism students and others, and several witnesses told the students that the female victim's uncle (now deceased) was the likely killer.
And, there is DNA. Some DNA tests, including on a trail of blood leading from the home, excluded Skinner. Other tests placed Skinner at the scene. (He was a frequent visitor to the home and claims he passed out the night of the crime from a combination of codeine and alcohol. A witness and two experts back his story.)
But most stunning is the physical evidence that has never been tested. The rape kit was not tested. The murder weapons were not tested. Several hairs clutched in the female victim's hand were not tested. A distinctive windbreaker strongly resembling the uncle's found two feet from her body and covered in blood? Not tested.
Since 2000, Skinner has repeatedly asked the local D.A. and the courts to order tests on the remaining evidence, confident they would prove his innocence. Each time, his plea has been denied on the grounds that he did not make the request before his trial. So, on March 24, 2010, Texas planned to execute Skinner while the evidence sat in a storage locker controlled by the current D.A., Lynn Switzer.
Less than an hour before the execution, Skinner's fortune changed -- for the time being. While munching on his last meal, he learned from his lawyer that the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a temporary stay. Prison guards abruptly escorted Skinner from his holding cell outside the execution chamber in Huntsville to his cell on death row in Livingston.
A few weeks later, the Court agreed to hear the case before another attempt could be made on his life. Finally, in a landmark decision earlier this year, the justices ruled 6-3 that Skinner had the right, under federal civil rights law, to sue D.A. Switzer to seek access to the remaining physical evidence for possible DNA testing.
As a federal magistrate in Texas considered the lawsuit that quickly followed, Skinner had another temporary stroke of good fortune. In May, the Texas legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill guaranteeing the right to post-conviction DNA testing, and in June Gov. Rick Perry signed it into law. The bill's sponsor publicly said that it was designed for cases like Skinner's and in memory of another prisoner, Tim Cole, who tragically died behind bars before DNA tests proved his innocence.
Suddenly, Skinner had two chances for justice: the federal lawsuit against the D.A. to gain access to the physical evidence in his case, and a new state law assuring the tests.
What happened next defies imagination. A Texas judge, days before the new statute went into effect and the DNA motion was filed, set another execution date for Skinner: November 9th. That's right. Skinner is scheduled to die in a month -- while two judges continue to contemplate whether he can test the evidence that might clear him.
Under other circumstances, the courts would issue a stay of execution and allow both civil actions -- one authorized by the highest court in the land, the other by the state legislature -- to move forward. Unfortunately for Skinner, however, the U.S. magistrate almost certainly lacks the authority in a federal civil case to issue a stay of execution in Texas. How about the state court judge with the DNA motion on his desk? He happens to be the same judge who set Skinner's execution date for November 9th.
Without intervention by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Gov. Perry, or the U.S. Supreme Court, Hank Skinner may well die before the DNA tests can be conducted. Welcome through the looking glass into the criminal justice system, where up is down, and down is up.
Fighting back, Skinner's advocates have posted a petition asking D.A. Switzer to "do the right thing" and order the tests on her own. And Skinner has gained support for his cause from, among others, six of the jurors who found him guilty and voted for death.
There are plenty of links to follow, so you can be reasonably well educated about the case if you wish. I will now open deliberations. In a few days, I will post my chapter on Hank Skinner from my impending book, about Rick Perry, the title of which is still being considered.

ADDENDA: My take on the Skinner case is now available here.