State Backs DNA Testing for Hank Skinner

Reversing its decade-long objection to testing that death row inmate Hank Skinner says could prove his innocence, the Texas Attorney General's office today filed an advisory with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking to test DNA in the case. 

"Upon further consideration, the State believes that the interest of justice would best be served by DNA testing the evidence requested by Skinner and by testing additional items identified by the state," lawyers for the state wrote in the advisory.

Skinner, now 50, was convicted in 1995 of the strangulation and beating death of his girlfriend Twila Busby and the stabbing deaths of her two adult sons on New Year’s Eve 1993 in Pampa. Skinner maintains he is innocent and was unconscious on the couch at the time of the killings, intoxicated from a mixture of vodka and codeine.

Rob Owen, co-director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Capital Punishment Clinic, said he was pleased the state "finally appears willing to work with us to make that testing a reality."

The details of the testing, he said, will still need to be arranged to ensure the evidence is properly handled and identified.

“Texans expect accuracy in this death penalty case, and the procedures to be employed must ensure their confidence in the outcome," he said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to cooperating with the State to achieve this DNA testing as promptly as possible.”

State lawyers have opposed testing in the case, arguing that it could not prove Skinner's innocence and that it would create an incentive for other guilty inmates to delay justice by seeking DNA testing. Today, though, the state reversed its course and has prepared a joint order to allow the tests.

Since 2000, Skinner has asked the courts to allow testing on crime scene evidence that was not analyzed at his original trial, including a rape kit, biological material from Busby’s fingernails, sweat and hair from a man’s jacket, a bloody towel and knives. Owen told the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last month that if DNA testing on all the evidence points to an individual who is not Skinner, it could create reasonable doubt about his client's guilt. 

The advisory comes a month after that hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in which the judges on the nine-member panel grilled attorneys for the state about their continued resistance to the testing even after a spate of DNA exonerations in Texas. In Texas, at least 45 inmates have been exonerated based on DNA evidence.

"You really ought to be absolutely sure before you strap a person down and kill him," Judge Michael Keasler said at the May hearing.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, praised the Texas Attorney General's move on Friday. Legislators last year approved a bill that Ellis wrote amending the state's post-conviction DNA testing law to allow for such analysis in cases like Skinner's. Under the measure, inmates can obtain testing even in instances where they had the chance to test the DNA at trial but did not do so and in cases where the DNA was tested previously but new technology allows for more advanced testing. 

In Skinner's case the state had long argued that he should not be allowed to test the DNA evidence because he had the opportunity to do so at his trial but chose not to. He sought testing again after the DNA measure was approved last year.

"Now we will have certainty in the Skinner case because we will have analyzed all the evidence," Ellis said in a statement. "There should be no lingering questions in capital cases."

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