Lawyers Disagree on DNA Test Results in Skinner Case

Questions still linger about brutal crime

Lawyers Disagree on DNA Test Results in Skinner Case

Had the state of Texas actually safeguarded and properly preserved evidence collected as part of its investigation into the 1993 slaying in Pampa of Twila Busby and her two grown sons, Elwin and Randy, it is unlikely that questions would linger about who is responsible for the brutal crime.

But the state lost a key piece of evidence in the case – a sweat- and blood-stained windbreaker found near Busby's body in the home she shared with her sons and her boyfriend, Hank Skinner. And it also failed to properly store additional evidence, making DNA testing on items impossible, according to Skinner's defense team.

Skinner, sentenced to die for the New Year's Eve 1993 triple murder, has maintained his innocence, saying he was passed out on booze and pills at the time of the crime, and awoke to find that the family had been slaughtered, before fleeing the home.

Hank Skinner
Hank Skinner

Had the state consented more than a decade ago to DNA testing of a number of items of evidence in the case – including the windbreaker – there is a chance the items would have been in better shape, or not disappeared, Skinner's lawyers have argued. But the state did not agree to test any of the items until 2012 – after its arguments against allowing Skinner access to DNA testing proved unimpressive before the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Several rounds of testing have now happened, and in a two-day hearing last week in Gray County, lawyers for the state and for Skinner argued the significance of the results – which, of course, depends on whom you ask. Since the first round of testing was completed in late 2012, the state has insisted that the results bolster its case against Skinner. His DNA was found on a knife the state believes was used in the crime, as well as on doorknobs, walls, a comforter, and a tennis shoe. The results "confirm" that Skinner is guilty, the state argues.

Skinner's defense counters that there is nothing definitive to link Skinner to the crime – and the absence of evidence in key places is telling, argues defense attorney Rob Owen of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law. Also significant to the defense are several hairs found clutched in Busby's hand that do not match Skinner's. DNA testing on the hairs revealed the profile of an unknown person with a maternal relationship to Busby, but a visual analysis of the hairs found them to be dissimilar to hair from Busby or her two sons.

Skinner's defense team believes the hair belongs to Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell, who they say is likely the real murderer. Don­nell was seen "stalking" Busby at a party the night she was murdered and he left the party shortly after she did. He has since died.

Indeed, a witness was set to testify last week that the windbreaker lost by the state – of which only photos remain – was in fact Donnell's. Owen also sought to introduce testimony about how that windbreaker, visibly splattered with blood and stained with sweat, could have been tested for DNA. The state fought inclusion of the testimony and Judge Steven Emmert agreed it would not be considered. Only recently has the Legislature amended state law to require the long-term preservation of any evidence that may contain biological evidence.

At this juncture, the question before the court is not whether Skinner is in fact innocent, but whether it is reasonably likely he would have been acquitted if the DNA testing had been completed and the results provided to his jury.

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