Hank Skinner: Unjustly Sentenced to Death – by Stephen Lendman
On December 31, 1993, (New Year’s eve) Skinner’s live-in girlfriend Twila and her two adult sons were stabbed to death in Pampa, TX. On March 18, 1995, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
On November 9, he’ll be executed, despite convincing evidence he’s innocent. Justice will be denied. As America’s death penalty capital, Texas rarely grants it.
Since presidential aspirant Rick Perry took office in December 2000, 234 executions occurred, more than under any other modern governor. At the same time, he refuses to admit erroneously putting anyone innocent to death, despite over 130 exonerated inmates nationwide since 1973.
In fact, 12 were in Texas, besides known and unknown others unjustly facing execution. Unless Skinner’s spared at the 11th hour, he’ll be number 13.
Capital punishment is barbaric and cruel. Amnesty International (AI) call it “the ultimate denial of human rights. It is premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state. This cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is done in the name of justice.”
There’s nothing just about state-sponsored murder, especially against wrongfully convicted victims. In America, they’re mostly poor Blacks and Latinos, denied due process and judicial fairness. The system is rigged to convict known innocent defendants.
Georgia’s September 21 cold-blooded murder of Troy Anthony Davis symbolizes a longstanding rogue practice.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia abolished it. Federal law should have stopped it long ago, ending a system with no regard for human life.
It disproportionately affects society’s least advantaged unjustly. On November 9, Henry W. (Hank) Skinner will be its next victim without 11th hour help to save him.
On December 31, 1993, Skinner ingested Xanax pills and alcohol. Xanax treats anxiety and panic disorders. It’s also used for anxiety-caused depression and other purposes.
A benzodiazepine drug, it may, in fact, cause anxiety and imbalance. It never should be combined with alcohol.
Skinner also took a heavy codeine dose. Around 10:15PM, he passed out. A close friend, Howard Mitchell, tried to revive him. His August 1994 court affidavit said:
“When I got there, Mr. Skinner was laying on the couch asleep, and there was a large bottle of vodka on the coffee table. I grabbed Mr. Skinner’s arm about five times. I got no reaction from Mr. Skinner. He was out cold.”
Letting him to sleep it off, Mitchell and Twila headed for a New Year’s party. Trial testimony said Twila left early. From the “Statement of Testimony At Trial” filed on behalf of Skinner’s appeal:
“Mitchell and Twila left the appellant alone in the house and drove to Mitchell’s trailer where a party was in progress. Twila’s uncle, Robert Donnell, got very drunk at the party.”
“Donnell was a big man with a hot temper who carried a knife in the trunk of his car. He had used force to collect a drug debt from a woman and sexually molested a young girl when she was asleep. Donnell followed Twila around at the party as if he was stalking her and made rude sexual advances. Twila became agitated and asked Mitchell to take her home.”
She arrived between 11:00 and 11:15PM. Shortly afterwards, she and her youngest son were stabbed to death. Her older son was also stabbed, but managed to flee to a neighbor’s yard and collapse. He never regained consciousness and died.
A neighbor found him around midnight and called the police. Earlier that evening, Skinner drank heavily. He also ingested a near fatal codeine dose. He’s severely allergic to the drug yet took it anyway. His allergy induces lethargy, delirium, hallucinations, and in Skinner’s case extreme illness.
Combined with Xanax and alcohol, testimony and evidence showed he was unconscious when the murders were committed.
Forensic toxicologist William T. Lowry testified at trial that Skinner’s condition rendered him physically incapable of committing the crimes. He also said the positioning of his handprints around the crime scene was consistent with someone stumbling around in a stupor. He was pharmacologically incapacitated.
Other forensic evidence showed Twila was also strangled by someone strong enough to leave permanent flesh indentations. The killer had extremely powerful hand strength.
In contrast, Skinner’s right hand was impaired by an earlier injury. He’s also a small man, weighing about 140 pounds. At trial, the medical examiner showed how Twila was strangled powerfully with both hands.
Skinner was clearly innocent. He also lacked motive. Only someone strong in a rage could have done it.
When police arrived to arrest him, they took no precautions to preserve the crime scene. Skinner said “they trampled the crime scene badly.” During pre-trial hearings, it was learned that up to 18 officers and a dog went through the house.
Police found a bloody pickaxe handle and bloodstained knife. They also identified numerous handprints around the house. Skinner, of course, lived there. Two identified as his were found on the bathroom and laundry room doors.
Others were identified on or near a door leading from the kitchen to the utility room at the rear of the house. Another was found on the door leading outside.
An affidavit submitted by Peace Officer J. Wallace said:
“Sheriff Stubblefied knew that Henry Watkins “Hank” Skinner lived with Twila Busby at 801 East Campbell and Sheriff Stubblefield had a feeling that Skinner was involved.”
Local authorities disliked him because of prior civil rights work related to addressing the rights of accused individuals, especially improper activities employed by authorities against them.
For 10 days, the crime scene was examined with no warrant, a clear violation of his rights. Nonetheless, at trial, the evidence was ruled admissible.
On January 5, 1994, Glenn Unnasch, Austin’s crime lab Department of Public Safety fingerprint expert, examined the crime scene. According to Skinner, Pampa police “impeded” his investigation. They:
“refused to let him go over the entire crime scene, but instead directed him to the bloody prints they’d found, and told him to recover only those. He was told to look only for my prints.”
Skinner’s appeal attorney, Steven C. Losch, said in his Statement of Testimony:
“Unnasch believed that a search of the crime scene for latent prints that were not made in blood could have produced important evidence, but he did not collect it because the Pampa police did not ask him to do so. Unnasch was also not asked to compare appellant’s handprint to the apparent latent bloody handprint that Burroughs saw on Twila Busby’s left forearm.”
The Statement of Testimony provided more evidence of investigatory malfeasance. Tests weren’t performed on blood evidence that could have absolved Skinner. Department of Public Safety forensic expert Gary Stallings didn’t examine the alleged murder weapon.
The Statement of Testimony said he didn’t “determine whether the blood on the blade of the knife that was found on the front porch was appellant’s blood or the blood of one of the victims….Stallings claimed that it was insignificant” even though prosecutors called it the murder weapon.
“….Dr. Peacock preserved (potential rape evidence) in a rape kit. (It) could have shown that Twila had sexual intercourse with someone other than appellant on or about the night of the murder.”
Nonetheless, Stallings performed no tests, believing Twila wasn’t raped. “Dr. Peacock and Stallings agreed that human hairs in the palms of Twila Busby’s hand could have come from the head of her assailant.”
However, no tests were performed. “Stallings acknowledged that (the assailant’s) blood could have been caught under (Twila’s) fingernails. Clippings of (her) bloody fingernails were preserved and submitted to Stallings for testing.”
None were performed. Skinner was judged guilty by accusation even though plenty of potentially exculpating evidence could have exonerated him. In testimony, Skinner said:
“Gary Stallings….testified that there was no need to test any of the blood on the purported murder weapons, the handprints or the other surfaces where it was found because if ‘wasn’t relevant to the investigation.’ ”
If proper investigatory procedures were followed, “(i)t would’ve proved my innocence.”
Skinner also said he’d “always been an outspoken advocate for the Constitution, constitutional rights, and prisoners’ rights. Over the years, I’ve been active through participation in inmate lawsuits on jail/prison conditions, have represented inmates at parole revocation hearings, have advised (them) when their court appointed shysters lied to them, and discouraged those who claimed innocence from accepting plea bargains.”
“I’ve had many interviews in the Pampa newspaper on the way (prior) sheriff Jimmy Free treated inmates in jail and violated their rights. In short, I was an irritant to the government of Gray County, and particularly to the District Attorney and sheriff’s offices.”
As a result, law enforcement officials used Twila’s murder as payback time. Skinner said the District Attorney “didn’t give a damn if I was guilty or not. He was going to ‘send me to the pen for a long, long time.’ This crime was the perfect opportunity for him to make good on that threat and so he did.”
Deliberating only two and a half hours, jurors pronounced Skinner guilty. Possible jury manipulation affected their decision. According to Skinner:
“There were a few items suppressed by the judge…But it was a cursory thing to assuage the defense motion for illegal search suppression of evidence. Not one item suppressed had any evidentiary value for the prosecution whatsoever.”
Important evidence was suppressed. When jurors began deliberating, they requested all available and a tape recorder. “The judge sent them a note which said all the evidence they were to consider was already in the jury room. In other words, ‘sure, there’s other evidence, but you can’t have it.’ ”
In 2000, David Protess, former head of Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism’s Innocence Project investigated Skinner’s case. He and student assistants found serious flaws in his case, suggesting innocence, not guilt.
On October 9, 2001, Skinner’s attorney petitioned for forensic testing to determine evidence regarding blood tests and other DNA material on the purported murder weapons.
He also wanted further DNA testing on a stained dish towel, rape kit evidence, bloodstained fingernail clippings, hairs and blood found on a jacket next to Twila’s body, and a blood comparison between Skinner, the murder victims, and primary suspect Donnell.
He later died in a car accident. Evidence showed he was drunk.
Skinner’s motion and appeal were denied. As a result, his attorney moved for DNA discovery in federal court. In July 2004, federal magistrate Clinton Averitte granted his motion in part.
DNA evidence showed GreenScreen lab (now called Orchid-Cellmark) misinterpreted results and didn’t report exculpatory evidence. Their personnel also didn’t cooperate with Skinner’s DNA experts.
On July 25, 2005, the federal magistrate ordered an evidentiary hearing relating to Skinner’s Habeas petition. Held on November 16, 17 and 18, 2005 in Amarillo federal court, Judge Robinson later denied Skinner in February 2007.
Filing a motion for DNA testing, Skinners attorneys appealed. Despite prosecutorial promises to examine all DNA evidence, tests weren’t conducted.
On May 14, 2008, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a certificate of appealability on two claims. Oral arguments followed on October 1, 2008 and September 23, 2009. Skinner was again denied.
On November 23, 2009, his attorneys petitioned the US Supreme Court. On March 1, 2010, he was denied. In response to subsequent appeals, the Supreme Court stayed his execution.
On March 7, 2011, the Supreme Court ruled Skinner may sue Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer in federal court to have full DNA evidence tested.
As explained above, his execution date is scheduled for November 9. On September 2, his attorneys petitioned the Gray County district court to compel DNA testing of key evidence not done so far. It’s still pending.
On September 1, Texas law SB 122 took effect. It’s to ensure procedural barriers don’t prevent prisoners from testing all relevant biological evidence, including what previously wasn’t examined.
Skinner’s life depends on whether Gray County district court upholds the law or, with time running out, whether further appeals for justice so far denied are possible.
A Final Comment
On September 10, a Washington Post editorial headlined, “In Texas, a rush to execute,” saying:
In a September 7 Republican presidential candidate debate, Governor Perry was asked if he “struggled to sleep at night,” worrying that innocent victims were among the 234 executions on his watch.
“No sir,” he responded. “I’ve never struggled with that at all.” Imagine if he’s elected president.
“Henry W. Skinner can attest that sometimes not even a Supreme Court victory” can grant him judicial fairness in Texas.
Even though Texas law SB 122 “make(s) it easier for inmates to secure DNA testing….no judge has yet ruled on Mr. Skinner’s requests.” Instead, “the state took the extraordinary step of rescheduling his execution for Nov. 9.”
In Texas and other states, innocence isn’t enough to assure justice, even on matters of life and death. Skinner’s now hangs in the balance with little time left to save him.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.