Questions Arise Over DNA in Death Row Case

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Twila Busby was Hank Skinner’s soul mate. “We just fell together. We just clicked, man,” he says. The two were hardly apart after they met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They would kiss in public and cuddled up on the couch to watch thrillers. They were “sick in love,” Skinner says through a telephone receiver behind a Plexiglas window on Texas’ death row unit in Livingston.

A jury found that Skinner was so sick in love that, in a jealous rage, he strangled Busby, bashed in her head and face with an ax handle and then stabbed to death her two mentally disabled adult sons on New Year's Eve 1993. He was sentenced to death for the three murders. His execution is scheduled for Feb. 24.

The 47-year-old doesn’t deny he was in the small house in the tiny West Texas town of Pampa on the night of the murders or that the blood on his clothes that night belonged to 41-year-old Busby and her sons. But Skinner and his lawyers say there’s no way he could have killed anyone; he was so loaded on vodka and pills that he was nearly comatose. They argue that his appointed trial attorney, a former district attorney who had previously prosecuted him for theft and assault, failed to adequately investigate other potential suspects. They insist Texas is about to execute an innocent man — and the state has evidence that could prove it.

The night of the murders, police collected, among other items, clippings from Busby’s broken fingernails, a rape kit, two knives from the crime scene, a bloodstained dish towel and a man’s windbreaker with sweat and hair on it. But most of it has never been DNA-tested. During Skinner’s trial, prosecutors tested some blood and hair from the scene, but not the fingernails, rape kit, knives, towel or windbreaker. Over the last decade, the state has fought Skinner in court to keep it that way. Prosecutors in Gray County and lawyers for the Texas Attorney General’s Office say Skinner had his chance at trial to test the evidence but that he declined, and the jury spoke; now, they say, it's time for him to face the consequences. “It’s already been handled,” says Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer. She’s the third district attorney in Pampa to deal with Skinner, who has sued her in federal court, seeking to force release of the DNA. “He doesn’t need to keep trying it over and over and over again. It’s already been handled.”

Skinner’s execution date approaches as Texas faces renewed scrutiny of its famously busy death row and the science used to convict the accused. Since 1973, just 11 death row inmates have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, while more than 440 have been put to death. The New Yorker touched off a national debate last year about how many of those killed might have been innocent by posthumously profiling  Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 after a jury convicted him of killing his three young children by arson in 1991. Before Willingham was executed, according to the story, the state ignored expert reports contending that the fire may have been accidental and calling the method used to prove that it was arson "junk science." A Texas Observer story earlier this month revealed that a psychologist the state has relied on to test the mental capacity of more than a dozen death row inmates used faulty methods to boost IQ scores so the men could meet the legal standard for the death penalty. And in Dallas County, maverick District Attorney Craig Watkins has launched a Conviction Integrity Unit that has reviewed more than 400 cases in which DNA from crime scenes was still available to be tested and has discovered at least 15 wrongful convictions. 

 

In Skinner’s case, attorneys argue that prosecutors selectively used DNA testing to put a potentially innocent man on death row, and that the state is manipulating a 2001 law that allows post-conviction DNA testing to keep him on the path to the death chamber. “The case against him is not open and shut; it’s not ironclad,” says attorney Rob Owen, co-director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Capital Punishment Clinic. “And in a reasonable system, we ought to go the extra mile to rule out the possibility that he is an innocent man before going forward with the execution.”

New Year’s Nightmare

Skinner and Busby had plans that New Year’s Eve. They were supposed to go to a friend’s house together, but Skinner got his celebration started early. By the time the friend stopped by the house to get them, Skinner was already passed out on the couch. He was so intoxicated from a codeine and vodka cocktail that even when the friend yanked repeatedly on his arm and hollered at him, Skinner didn’t budge.

So Busby went without him. Friends at the party said Busby’s intoxicated uncle, Robert Donnell, began stalking her there. The two had a predatory incestuous relationship, according to several people who have testified in Skinner's case. A private investigator who looked into Donnell’s past found a long criminal history, including convictions for vehicle theft, embezzlement and burglary. He had served prison time, usually carried a large knife and told stories about having killed a man in a pool hall fight in Oklahoma. Busby’s friends described him as “scary” and said she had called them several times over the years to protect her from his frightening advances.

Agitated by Donnell’s come-ons at the party, Busby left for home — the last time anyone admits to having seen Busby alive. Donnell left the party shortly after, witnesses said, and there has never been a full accounting of his whereabouts that night.

Neighbors called police just before midnight when Busby’s 22-year-old son, Elwin “Scooter” Caler, showed up on their porch in his underwear, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. Police followed a trail of blood back to Busby’s house and walked in on a grisly scene. She was sprawled on the living room floor, her face and head beaten to a pulp; blood was splattered across the room. Her other son, 20-year-old Randy Busby, lay dead in his bunk bed, stabbed three times in the back.

Immediately, Gray County Sheriff Randy Stubblefield identified Skinner as the primary suspect. He sent deputies to look for him in the attic and called in a dog to sniff out a crawl space below the house. They arrested him blocks away hiding at a frightened former girlfriend’s house, blood on his clothes, a deep gash in his hand.

The State’s Case

 

Andrea Reed, the ex-girlfriend, was the state’s star witness during the 1995 murder trial in Fort Worth (it was moved because of the presumably prejudicial attention the crime received in Pampa). Reed said Skinner was an alcoholic and a drug user. A recovering addict herself, she had sponsored him and Busby in Alcoholics Anonymous but tried to stay away from Skinner, she said, because he had fallen off the wagon.

The night of the murders, she told jurors, Skinner showed up at her trailer house banging on the front door, intoxicated and disoriented, with blood on his clothes and his hand cut. He told her he had been shot in the gut and stabbed in the shoulder, chest and arm. He ordered her to stitch up his hand, she said, and threatened to kill her if she called the police. “I told him the only thing I had was fishing line. And he had to get the fishing line, and I brought the Ambesol to deaden it,” Reed testified. “And he kept heating and bending needles.”

As Reed attempted to stitch his wound, Skinner told her wild stories about how he’d gotten injured. First, he said he had been drinking vodka and smoking crack with Busby when “some Mexicans” came to the front door brandishing knives. At another point in the more than three hours he spent at her house, Skinner told Reed that he had caught Busby in bed with her ex-husband. He started to tell yet another story about a man breaking into the house, Reed said, but he didn’t finish that one. Then, after swearing her to secrecy, Skinner told Reed he thought he had killed Busby. “He said he thought he had kicked her to death,” she told the jury.

John Mann, then the Gray County district attorney, showed jurors DNA testing on blood that covered swaths of Skinner’s clothes, and on blood and hair from Randy Busby’s bedding and body. The DNA put Skinner in the house at the time of the murders. His bloody palm prints were also found at the scene.

Though toxicology tests indicated Skinner had nearly lethal levels of drugs and alcohol in his system, the prosecution argued the habitual user had enough tolerance that he would have been capable of killing Busby and the boys. After all, he had the physical strength to walk several blocks to hide out at Reed’s house and the mental clarity to keep her from calling the police.

The jury condemned Skinner to death in less than two hours.

“Hellfighters”

Skinner grew up in Virginia and moved to Pampa in 1981 after divorcing his first wife. He wanted a clean start and had heard good things about the oil business. “I’d seen ['Hellfighters'] with John Wayne, Boots and Coots, Red Adair and all that, you know. And so, man, I wanted to come out here to Texas,” he says. A jack of all trades, Skinner says he made good money doing everything from welding to installing drywall to working on cars. He also did paralegal work for a local criminal attorney, helping out friends who'd gotten tossed in the clink. That, he says, is how he made enemies in the Pampa law enforcement community.

Of course, his hard drinking and partying ways also caught the attention of local officials. He had a history of committing petty crimes and had been prosecuted for car theft and assault. “I look at everything as an opportunity, and I live life like an adventure," Skinner says. "Somehow or another, man, I irritate people with my lifestyle.” Police turned to him as a suspect in the murders because it was convenient, Skinner says, and “because I was a pain in their ass.”

Skinner contends he was unconscious on the couch, still reeling from the effects of the liquor and the pills, when the murderer attacked his girlfriend and her sons. His blood alcohol content was .24 — three times the legal level of intoxication, .08. Toxicology tests showed Busby was also drunk at the time of the murder and that she struggled mightily, breaking her fingernails as she tried to fend off her attacker. And her boys, though mentally challenged, were physically huge. Caler was more than 6 feet tall and weighed more than 220 pounds; Skinner is only 5 feet 8 inches tall. “This whole case is nothing but a pack of lies from the beginning to the end,” Skinner says.

The way he tells it now, a bleeding and dying Caler managed to rouse him from his chemical-induced lethargy, probably by splashing water in his face. Startled, Skinner says he fell off the couch onto shards of glass from a light fixture the killer broke while wielding the ax handle against Busby. That’s how he got the cut. “It hurt me so bad I jerked my hand back, and when I did I fell the rest of the way,” he says, displaying the scar on the palm of his hand. “And when I was laying flat on the floor, that’s when I saw my girlfriend and what was done to her."

With the ailing Caler propping him up, Skinner says, he left the house to look for help. Caler went to a nearby neighbor’s house, while Skinner headed for the party to get help from the men there. In his stupor, Skinner says he could only walk a few steps before he would fall to the ground. Then he would crawl and try to walk again, only to fall back down and crawl a little farther. He only made it as far as Reed’s house, he says.

Skinner says Reed helped him willingly that night and that he never threatened her. And in a 1997 affidavit, Reed recanted her incriminating trial testimony. She claimed she was intimidated into testifying against Skinner by the police, who told her, she said, that she could face charges if she had helped him. She said Skinner didn’t threaten to kill her and was too intoxicated to carry out such a threat or to have murdered three people. “I believe that his statement about kicking Twila to death was just a drunken fantasy, like the other violent stories that he told me to explain how he was injured,” Reed wrote.

Skinner has always proclaimed his innocence, but state and federal courts have rejected 15 years of his pleadings. Still, as his execution date draws near, Skinner and his advocates continue to wage a legal fight for additional DNA testing. Only then, they say, will Texas know whether Skinner or a third person was the real killer. “They have no right to kill me,” Skinner says, “because I’m innocent, innocent, innocent.”

Tomorrow: Journalism students to the rescue?

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