Supreme Court agrees to hear Skinner case

Hank Skinner

As this excellent article from the Texas Tribune makes clear, the Hank Skinner case is a head-on collision between two interest groups: inmates looking to have DNA evidence tested, and overworked state officials who fear they will be buried in frivolous requests for DNA testing.

As this summary shows, the state’s case against Hank Skinner looks pretty damning:

Skinner was convicted in 1995 of murdering his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two mentally disabled sons, Randy Busby and Elwin Caler, in their small Pampa home. Busby was strangled and bludgeoned to death; the young men were stabbed. Skinner doesn’t deny he was in the house that New Year’s Eve in 1993 but maintains that he was too incapacitated from a mixture of vodka and codeine to carry out the attacks. He believes the real killer was probably Twila’s uncle, Robert Donnell, an ex-con with a violent temper who has since died.

At the original trial, Gray County DA John Mann showed jurors DNA evidence from blood on Skinner’s clothes that belonged to Twila and Elwin. The state’s star witness, Skinner’s ex-girlfriend, Andrea Reed, described how he showed up at her home that night covered in blood. She said Skinner told her he thought he had kicked Twila Busby to death, ordered her to sew up a wound on his hand and threatened to kill her if she called the police. The jury returned a guilty verdict in less than two hours.

Skinner, 48, has always denied committing the murders and says he loved Busby and her boys. In 1997 Reed recanted her courtroom testimony, saying the police intimidated her into testifying against Skinner. Since 2000, Skinner has asked the state to release other evidence for DNA testing, including a rape kit, biological material from Twila’s fingernails, sweat from a man’s jacket resembling one that Donnell often wore, a bloody towel and knives. Those items weren’t tested at his original trial because his attorney at the time worried the results might be incriminating, but Texas courts have repeatedly denied Skinner’s requests for testing in the years since, saying that he had his chance in 1995 and contending that more tests wouldn’t prove that he wasn’t the murderer.

But the legal waters have muddied considerably since the trial:

Skinner, 48, has always denied committing the murders and says he loved Busby and her boys. In 1997 Reed recanted her courtroom testimony, saying the police intimidated her into testifying against Skinner. Since 2000, Skinner has asked the state to release other evidence for DNA testing, including a rape kit, biological material from Twila’s fingernails, sweat from a man’s jacket resembling one that Donnell often wore, a bloody towel and knives. Those items weren’t tested at his original trial because his attorney at the time worried the results might be incriminating, but Texas courts have repeatedly denied Skinner’s requests for testing in the years since, saying that he had his chance in 1995 and contending that more tests wouldn’t prove that he wasn’t the murderer.

Who do you believe: the Andrea Reed who implicated Hank Skinner at trial or the Andrea Reed who says she was intimidated into implicating an innocent man?

Is Skinner telling the truth when he says the evidence wasn’t tested against his wishes?

If tested, would the evidence implicate Donnell and exonerate Skinner?

None of these questions can be answered definitively. 

If Skinner was guilty, would he ask to have the evidence tested?

Sure, it happens all the time.  Some inmates feel they have nothing to lose by rolling the dice.  Maybe old Hank is just trying to stay alive a few days longer.

Or perhaps the state of Texas is fixing to execute an innocent man.

With this much at stake, why not run the DNA test?  Those opposed to the testing value finality over certainty.  If Hank Skinner was a prominent banker and Baptist deacon, he might get the benefit of the doubt.  Unfortunately, he is just another poor white guy with addiction issues. 

Thus far, the legal community is standing foursquare behind the prosecutor:

The attorneys general of nearly two-dozen states, including Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado, submitted a brief supporting Gray County DA Switzer in the Skinner case. They argue that if the court were to allow Skinner to seek a federal court’s approval for DNA testing, it would undermine post-conviction DNA laws in 48 states. “Sound principles of federalism and judicial restraint demand that this Court reject Skinner’s invitation,” the attorneys general wrote. A ruling in Skinner’s favor, they said, would also invite hundreds of inmates to file similar litigation, overtaxing scarce state funds. But Owen said that was unlikely to happen: In states that do allow civil rights lawsuits for those seeking DNA evidence, he argued, inmates have not flooded the courts with lawsuits. “It’s going to be a safety valve for highly unusual cases like our case,” he said.

Which side will the Supreme Court take?  Stay tuned.