The Austin Chronicle

Skinner Defense: New DNA Testing Suggests His Innocence

By Jordan Smith, September 6, 2013, News

The results of new, additional DNA testing in the Hank Skinner case demonstrates he is innocent of the multiple murders in the Panhandle that sent Skinner to the row in 1995, defense lawyers argue in new court filings.

Skinner was sentenced to die for the New Year's Eve 1993 murders of his longtime girlfriend Twila Busby and her two grown sons in the Pampa home they shared. Skinner has maintained he is innocent of the crime, saying he was passed out on booze and drugs and that when he came to he found the family slaughtered. That's why previous DNA testing – reported in November 2012 by the state – revealed his profile in blood found on a dresser, door frame, multiple doorknobs, a comforter, and a tennis shoe in the home, his lawyers, including Rob Owen from the University of Texas Capital Punishment Clinic, argue. Notably, in that round of testing an unknown male DNA profile was found on a knife believed to be used in the crime, found on the front porch of the home and on carpeting in the bedroom Busby's sons shared.

This newest round of testing, conducted on a series of hairs found clutched in Busby's hand, reveal that one belongs to Skinner, but also that at least two hairs belong to someone related to Busby, even though a visual analysis by the Texas Department of Public Safety concluded that they did not belong to Busby or either of her sons. That is significant, Skinner's lawyers say, because it suggests that an alternate theory of the crime long floated by Skinner's defense may in fact be key to solving the crime. According to Skinner's defense, Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell (now deceased), had been stalking Busby and making sexual advances toward her at a party the night she died. Indeed, a windbreaker stained by blood that was found at the crime scene was tied to Donnell, known to be violent; that windbreaker has never been tested. In fact, that crucial piece of evidence has simply disappeared and no one in law enforcement seems to know what has become of it.

Moreover, the lawyers note in a DNA-testing update "advisory" to the Gray County district court filed last week, police noted that Donnell showed "absolutely no emotion when informed by police that his niece and her two sons had been murdered," and two days after the murder Donnell was seen "frantically ... scrubbing his old pickup truck down to the metal floorboards with an astringent cleaner." Those crucial details combined with both the older and this new DNA evidence, taken from hairs at the scene, cast grave doubts on his guilt – "the doubts about Mr. Skinner's guilt are far too weighty to allow his execution to proceed," reads the court filing.

The new evidence has not swayed the A.G.'s office, which is resolute in its certainty that Skinner is responsible for Busby's and her sons' deaths. Indeed, the latest DNA testing again puts Skinner at the scene. "The new round of testing does nothing to vindicate Hank Skinner in the murder of Twila Busby," said Jerry Strickland, communications director for A.G. Greg Abbott.

All that's been accomplished, he said, is delayed justice for Busby and her family. Indeed, what has become lengthy post-conviction wrangling over DNA in this case is "the reason" why the A.G.'s office supported passage of a new law that would require DNA testing of evidence in capital cases to be performed before trial "instead of continuing to delay justice," he said.

Texas' execution schedule is on a hiatus until Sept. 19, when the first of the remaining five dates with death scheduled for 2013 takes place (Robert Garza is slated to die that day). How exactly the state will get through the remaining 2013 dates is unclear. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says its remaining stock of pentobarbital expires in September, but the agency will not say how many doses are left or what it will do when the drugs on hand run out.

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