Seven of the jurors who sent Hank Skinner to death row for the murders of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons now say they want the state to test all the DNA available in the case.
Four of Northwestern University professor David Protess' students at the Medill School of Journalism spent about a week in Fort Worth this spring tracking down and interviewing jurors who convicted Skinner.
They found and interviewed seven of the 12 jurors still in the Fort Worth area. Several of them told the students that had they known then what they know now, they might have had reasonable doubt of Skinner's guilt. All seven said they thought the remaining unanalyzed DNA in Skinner's case ought to be tested. The students — Rachel Cicurel, Gaby Fleischman, Emily Glazer and Alexandra Johnson — wrote about their trip to Texas and their talks with the jurors in a story posted this morning on AOL's Politics Daily blog.
In 1995, the Fort Worth jury took less than two hours to sentence Skinner to death. The condemnation was based primarily on DNA evidence that placed Skinner at the scene of the murders and on the testimony of a neighbor who said Skinner came to her house the night of the murders and told her he killed Busby.
A lot has happened since the jury made its decision 15 years ago. Andrea Reed, the woman whose testimony was so damning, has since recanted her story, claiming police and prosecutors coerced her. And back in 2000, another group of Protess' students discovered a slew of untested DNA evidence, including a rape kit, bloodied knives and biological material underneath Busby's fingernails. That first group of students also interviewed witnesses who bolstered Skinner's suspicion that Busby's uncle could have been the real killer. Witnesses said the uncle ripped out the carpet from his pickup and repainted it soon after the murders, and they said he had a predatory incestuous relationship with Busby, even stalking her earlier on the same night she was killed.
"I had no idea that [Andrea Reed] recanted her story, her testimony; that brings new light," Tiffany Daniel, the youngest member of the jury, told the Medill students this spring. "That puts a lot of questions in my mind."
The four students who interviewed the jurors this spring said they were surprised to find them so willing to talk about the case all these years later. For many of the jurors, the experience was an emotional one. Some had kept up with developments in the case over the years, and others had tried to put it out of their minds. "It was clear that all of them took their responsibility very seriously," said Medill student Alexandra Johnson. "All seven told us that they believe the remaining DNA evidence should be tested to ensure that the right man was locked away — and to ensure that a just verdict is delivered."
Skinner has insisted he is innocent from the start of the case. He has for years pleaded with Texas courts to allow DNA testing on evidence that has not yet been analyzed. The courts have denied those requests, but earlier this year, less than an hour before he was supposed to be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay. Last month, the high court agreed to take up Skinner's case and decide whether he can file a federal civil rights lawsuit to press for the DNA testing.
"I think the jurors are a reflection of the growing public concensus that the Supreme Court should grant Hank Skinner and other inmates in his position the right to biological testing of evidence," Protess said.
The students said their interview with Tiffany Daniel, who was their age at the time of Skinner's trial, left a lasting impression. She shed tears while talking about the case and learning about the new evidence. "When people talk about this case, they usually think it only affects [Skinner], but people don't take into account the guilt that the jurors may feel if [Skinner] is killed by the state of Texas and it is later discovered that he was innocent," said Gaby Fleischman.
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