Is Texas About to Execute Another Innocent Defendant?

The Medill Innocence Project is painting a scary picture regarding the impending execution of Hank Skinner. Mr. Skinner was onvicted of bludgeoning to death his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and fatally stabbing her two adult sons in their Pampa, Texas home on New Year's Eve of 1993. Skinner was convicted of the crimes in 1994 and sentenced to death in 1995. He is scheduled to be executed on March 24.

The state's case against Skinner was entirely circumstantial. He has consistently professed his innocence, there was no physical evidence linking him to the murder weapons and no eyewitness or apparent motive for the crime. Skinner indisputably was in the home at the time of the murders, but claims he had passed out from mixing large quantities of alcohol and codeine. When he awoke, he stumbled to a neighbor’s residence to report the murders, according to Skinner.

But the neighbor, Andrea Reed, testified that Skinner made incriminating statements about the crime and ordered her not to call the police. That was enough for the jury to find him guilty, and, although Skinner had no history of violence that would remotely explain the horrific murders (his worst offense was a conviction for assault), he was sentenced to death. Ms. Reed later recanted her trial testimony in an audio-taped interview. Reed told the student-journalists that she had been intimidated by the authorities into concocting a false story against Skinner. “I did not then and do not now feel like he was physically capable of hurting anybody,” Reed said.

For another, toxicology tests on Skinner's blood indicated he would have lacked the strength, balance and agility to commit the triple homicide. Based on the crime scene evidence, the actual killer would have had to bludgeon Twila to death and then repeatedly stab her six foot, six inch son who was standing next to her, a near impossibility for Skinner -- whose blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit and contained a comparable level of codeine.

Earlier this week, a new scientific report by one of the leading experts in the field of toxicology revealed that Skinner's incapacity at the time of the murders was more severe than originally believed. Dr. Harold Kalant, an M.D. and Ph.D., reviewed the tests of Skinner's blood levels and concluded that a moderate drinker with that much alcohol and codeine would "almost certainly be comatose, and in some cases be near death or even dead." Even a heavier drinker like Skinner "would not be able to assess correctly where he was...would be very confused and badly impaired, and would have difficulty standing or walking in a coordinated manner."

Other residents of Pampa told the student-journalists in videotaped interviews that the more likely perpetrator was Robert Donnell, Twila's uncle. Donnell had been “hitting on” his niece at a New Year’s Eve party shortly before the slayings. Rebuffing his advances, she left the party frightened, her uncle following behind, according to the witnesses. (A close friend of Twila’s said she confided to being raped by her uncle in the past.) The day after the crime, another witness claimed to have seen Donnell scrubbing the interior of his pick-up truck, removing the rubber floorboards and replacing the carpeting. Perhaps most telling, a windbreaker just like the one the uncle often wore was found at the scene – directly next to his niece’s body. The jacket was covered with human hairs and sweat.

Yet evidence from the windbreaker has never been scientifically tested. Moreover, prosecutors have steadfastly opposed DNA tests on two blood-stained knives, skin cells found underneath Twila’s fingernails, vaginal swabs and hairs removed from her hand – even though forensic tests on one of the hairs proved it did not come from Skinner. (The physical evidence remains sealed, but the courts have acceded to prosecutors’ demands not to conduct the tests.) In a death row interview with the student-journalists, Skinner said he was innocent and welcomed new tests on the old evidence.

There were also serious problems with trial counsel and potential conflict of interest questions. Click here for more details from the Mellin Innocence Project.