Hank Skinner, 18 years on Texas Death Row and most likely innocent!

English: Allan B. Polunsky Unit Español: Unida...

English: Allan B. Polunsky Unit Español: Unidad Allan B. Polunsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is more than a year and a half year ago that Troy Davis was executed. He was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. It was one of those executions that caused a lot of outrage. Witnesses in the trial later claimed they were forced to testify things they actually never saw, members of the jury later said they would have never found him guilty if they would have known back then, what they knew now. Davis was executed anyway because he was found guilty. Not actual guilt was the reason, but the fact that he was found guilty was the reason. Troy Davis is dead now. And my question is if we are going to let something like that happen again?

A justice system is meant to do justice. They should get it right. Unfortunately it is not always the case that doing the right thing and trying to find out what really happened has the highest priority. Often it seems to be more important to get it over with and close a case, even if many questions remain unanswered.

This is for obvious reasons especially wrong in death penalty cases. You have to be guilty beyond reasonable doubt before execution can even be considered. In many death penalty cases we know beyond any doubt that the one who is convicted is guilty. This post is not meant to claim that the best human beings on the planet are all living on Death Row. It is meant to discuss one case in which it is not a fact that someone is guilty, but a theory. A theory that became more and more unlikely.

This post is about the Hank Skinner case. A man convicted for triple murder almost two decades ago. He has been on Texas Death Row ever since. There is a lot of information about this case online, feel free to read as much as you want. What I will write here are facts, what I want to create is awareness. Any innocent person on Death Row could be you or me. Any person who’s guilt is not proven beyond reasonable doubt, is innocent.

Hank Skinner was at home New Years Eve 1993, as his live-in girlfriend Twila Busby and her two sons were murdered in his house. Blood spatters from two of the victims were found on Skinner’s clothes. His DNA was found on a lot of objects in the house and instead of calling the police once he found out what happened, he fled the scene and went to his neighbor, Andrea Joyce Reed. He then supposedly threatened to kill her if she would call the police. Reed would later be a key witness in the trial. A pretty clear case, one would think. But we are not done yet.

Things are not always what they seem to be. A couple of issues that will follow have been discussed during Skinner’s trial, but many haven’t. Some information was ignored by his representation back then, other information was not yet available. There is a lot of crucial information the jury had not seen as they found him guilty.

Skinner claims, and blood tests confirm, that he was in a comatose condition from a near lethal dose of codeine and alcohol when the murders took place. He was lying passed out on the sofa. A friend of both Skinner and the victims came to visit them on the night of the murders and confirmed that, as he arrived, Hank Skinner was sleeping on the sofa and there was absolutely no way to wake him up. He was in a coma. That friend therefore, took one of the victims, Twila Busby, to a party, where several witnesses saw that she was stalked by her uncle, Robert Donnell. Remember that name.

Donnell had a hot temper and had used violence before. On the night of the murder he was seen harassing Twila Busby which scared her off so much that she left the party not long after she arrived there. She went home and was slaughtered to death shortly after that.

As the police arrived on the scene they decided within minutes that everything pointed to Hank Skinner as the murderer. They didn’t feel the need to test a lot of evidence they found. A jacket with blood on it, a knife, the murder weapon, none of it was tested. Skinner did it anyway. They arrested him a couple of hours later in the house he fled to.

As officers wanted to take his photograph they had to hold him upright, because he was still not able to stand on his own feet. Toxicologists would testify that with the level of alcohol and codeine found in Skinner’s blood, it was physically impossible that he could have committed the murders. Three adult victims were slaughtered to death, while Skinner could barely stand on his feet.

This statement was at the trial undermined by a key witness, neighbor Joyce Reed, who claimed Skinner had developed resistance to alcohol and codeine. Her opinion was not based on science and not backed up by experts. But the jury believed it. Reed was the neighbor who had also said that Skinner had threatened to kill her if she called the police, a statement that had to prove that he had something to hide. Skinner was found guilty and sentenced to death.

But after the trial the key witness recanted her testimony and claimed that the police had threatened to charge her as an accomplice in the murder unless she would testify things that were not completely correct. A tactic that is unfortunately used a lot. We have seen the same in the Troy Davis case.

Without her testimony, the toxicologist’s statement that Skinner could never have committed the murders still stands. Without her testimony Skinner did not threaten to kill her if she would call the police. Without her testimony key evidence is not evidence anymore. Time for a new trial you would think, but there is more.

From the moment the investigation started Hank Skinner has been the only suspect. It was his house, he left the scene so he did it. Therefore the only things that have been tested were objects that would incriminate him. Objects that could point to other suspects were not investigated, not tested and totally ignored.

It is a fact that Skinner’s DNA was found on several objects in the house, but then again, he lived there. Blood spatters of two victims were also found on Skinner’s clothes. But if you are in the middle of a crime scene, and one of the victims who at that point was still alive, tries to wake you up to ask for help, of course you will have his blood on your clothes. And yes, if you are innocent and you flee from a crime scene and stumble to the neighbor, it does not look good. But is it unimaginable that someone who almost had a lethal dose of codeine and alcohol, does not have the clear mind to do what makes most sense?

The most disturbing things are yet to come.

Skinner has always claimed he is innocent. His defense team has asked for additional DNA testing for ten years. Texas has always refused to do further testing and claimed that Skinner was just trying to delay his execution. An argument that would make sense if someone starts asking for additional testing a day before his execution, but not if someone has been asking for it for ten years. The claim that Skinner did not ask for testing during his trial and thereby lost that right also makes no sense. Just because you had bad representation during a trial, does not mean you should pay for that with your life. Furthermore, if there are so many objects not tested yet and a key witness recants her testimony, it is kind of the job of the Justice System to make absolutely sure they got it right, before they want to kill someone.

In 2010, half an hour before his execution, the Supreme Court granted Skinner a stay. A year later Supreme Court ordered that inmates have the right to post-trial DNA testing in case important things remain unclear. This ruling was a victory for Skinner who had always claimed there had to be another person’s DNA on several objects. And now Texas was forced to give the opportunity to test those objects. With no options left to execute Skinner straight away, Texas made a deal to do some additional testing. And this is where this case gets really disturbing.

A couple of months ago Texas released the first results. On a knife used in the murders they found Skinner’s DNA, which was clear from the start because Skinner always used it in his kitchen. The defense knew that but wanted to test it to see if there was also DNA on it that belonged to someone else. And guess what? The prosecution had to admit they also found DNA from one of the victims and from an unidentified third person on the murder weapon. Something the Skinner defense had been fighting for all those years. Now there was scientific evidence that there was another person involved. They finally had it. But instead of investigating that an unknown person’s DNA is found on a murder weapon, the prosecution ignored it and stated that Skinner’s DNA was also found on his own kitchen knife. Not really breaking news if your DNA is on your knife, but the prosecution claims that it proves his guilt and ignores the other DNA that was found on it.

And it gets worse.

The most important thing the Skinner defense team wanted to test all those years is a jacket with a lot of blood spatters on it. The jacket was also found at the crime scene and has never been tested. Skinner has always claimed it was not his jacket, it also does not fit him. This is where I go back to Robert Donnell, the uncle of the victim who has been seen stalking her, the night of the murder.

Several witnesses claim that the jacket found at the crime scene was a jacket that belonged to the uncle of the victim. Many people have seen him wear it. After a ten year battle in which the prosecution refused to test it, Skinner finally was given the right to test it. And exactly at that moment the prosecution claimed to have ‘lost’ the jacket. It can’t be tested. Exactly at the moment they were finally forced to test it, all of a sudden it disappeared.

And to make this case even more disturbing, once they started to find DNA from an unknown person on objects from the crime scene, the prosecution immediately decided to stop additional DNA testing.

The uncle, Robert Donnell, who stalked the victim on the night of the murder and who had a jacket that was found on the crime scene, died a couple of years after the murders. The Skinner defense had always pointed at him as a suspect but the prosecution never wanted to investigate it. And now there is no way they can ever ask him anything. He’s dead.

The prosecution once used a key witness who later recanted her testimony. The prosecution initially only tested things that would very likely have Skinner’s DNA on it anyway. For ten long years the prosecution refused to test objects they found on the crime scene that could point to another suspect. Once forced to, the results of DNA testing actually did point to another person. The prosecution ‘lost’ the single most important object the defense wanted to test, which happened to be a jacket full of blood, that according to witnesses belonged to the uncle of the victim, who by coincidence has been seen stalking her on the night of the murder. The prosecution ignores scientists who claim Skinner could never have committed these murders in the condition he was in.

And as I write this Hank Skinner is on Death Row in Texas. The prosecution still wants to execute him.

This is not a discussion about the death penalty. People will always disagree on that. But let’s at least agree that before we execute someone, we first have to be sure that he or she is actually guilty. I have tried to give as much information as I can. There is more information online, feel free to check it out.

The prosecution stopped additional testing once they started to find DNA from a different person. That says a lot because it proves that their focus is not on doing justice, but on winning this case, no matter if they are right or not.

The defense wants to do more testing. The more DNA from that unknown person will be found, the more likely it is that a judge won’t allow an execution to take place. DNA testing is expensive and now that Texas refuses to do it, because it undermines their case, the defense has to pay for it. If they can’t, there will be no more testing. For those who can afford it and who are convinced that this case has nothing to do with justice, you can go to http://www.hankskinner.org/hs/hs.php?en,help to see how you can help, by creating awareness, inform your network or donate.

Although I am convinced that Skinner is innocent, that is not even the question. The question is if he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The question is if, looking at all the evidence, there is no possible doubt about his guilt. Decide for yourself if that is the case and if you don’t think so and you’re in the situation to help in whatever way you can. I hope you will.

You can literally help save the life of someone who is probably just as innocent as you are.