Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Remarkable Developments in the Case of Hank Skinner

I cut my blogging teeth with a ten-part series about Hank Skinner.

Though Hank was undeniably in the house when his girlfriend (Twila Busby) and her two grown sons (Randy and Elwin) were murdered, and though he had her blood on him, and though he had a severe cut on his hand, I believe he is more likely innocent than not.

Hank's defense was that he was too intoxicated to have committed the murders, and the evidence for that odd claim is substantial.

I have fervently opposed the execution of Hank Skinner because the crime scene was a DNA rich environment, and much of the evidence seems to point to a third party. (Much of the speculation regarding that third party revolves around Twila's allegedly lecherous uncle.) Most of that DNA evidence was not tested before trial, because both the State and and Skinner's hapless attorney felt such testing might not be to their advantage. 

Hank Skinner has spent the last decade and a half trying to get that evidence tested. At one point, some of it was tested, and the results tended to exonerate Skinner. (See Factually Exonerated!) Somehow the other evidence that was to be tested (such as the rape kit and the fingernail scrapings) never were tested.

With the help of a professional graphic design artist, I prepared a large summary page of the DNA evidence that has and has not been tested.  I repeat it below.

Of course my efforts had no impact on Texas' intention to kill Skinner before the DNA was tested. He was saved repeatedly by the efforts of his brilliant attorney Rob Owen.  Rob shot down the first execution date because of a technical flaw in the death warrant. That bought one month, since Texas had to issue a new death warrant and the warrant cannot specify an execution date less than a month away. That month was absolutely critical.

In the wee hours of 24 March 2010, I used this blog to say goodbye to Skinner in Godspeed, Hank Skinner. He was scheduled for execution that evening.

With less than an hour before Skinner's once-delayed execution, Rob managed to convince Justice Antonin Scalia (of all justices) to grant Skinner a stay.  Rob argued that Skinner had a Constitutional right to sue the prosecutor in civil court to obtain the DNA evidence.

The Supreme Court as a whole agreed with Scalia that Skinner's case was worth hearing. and eventually ruled that Skinner had a right to press his claim through the Texas court system. (See Hank Skinner and the Supremes.)

Suddenly, after almost two and a half years, the case is developing rapidly. Though I pledged myself not to write of anything other than impending executions and Preston Hughes until I completed the Preston Hughes series, the Skinner developments are suddenly so significant and so frequent that I now grant myself an exception.

So what are the developments. Let me count the ways.

And finally this shocking (but not surprising) item, just in.

It's not just any piece of evidence that is missing. It is the windbreaker that belonged to neither Skinner nor anyone else who lived in the house. The suspicion is that the windbreaker belonged to Robert Donnell, Twila Busby's allegedly lecherous uncle who left the New Year's Eve party soon after she did. (Skinner was at home, in a drunken stupor on the couch.) 

The windbreaker was the piece of DNA evidence most likely to place someone else in the house that night. And now it is missing.

As it turns out, my post Factually Exonerated! was prophetic. In it, I compared Texas' handling of potentially exculpatory evidence with Lenin's handling of unpleasant historical evidence, such as the very existence of Leon Trotsky.

There's Lenin now, with his friend Trotsky. Oh, wait! Someone inadvertently misplaced Trotsky.

There is, by the way, a piece of non-DNA evidence that has never been tested, that may unequivocally point to someone other than Hank Skinner. A bloody knife was found in a garbage bag. I understand that fingerprints or a palm print was lifted from that bag. I understand further that the prints did not match Hank Skinner. As far as I know, the State has not attempted to match those prints against any other individual. As far as I know, they could attempt a comparison against Robert Donnell, since he had previously been incarcerated by the people of Texas.

And, as far as I know, the Supremes agreed that Skinner has the right to pursue the DNA material, but were mute with respect his right to pursue post-conviction fingerprint comparisons.

Once again, however, Skinner is in little need of any assistance from me. He is blessed with one of the best defense teams of which I am aware.

In the case of Preston Hughes, by comparison, I seem to be all that he has. He would be much better off to have Rob Owen on his side.