A district court judge ruled against death row inmate Hank Skinner this week, saying it was “reasonably probable” Skinner would have still been convicted of a triple murder even if recently conducted DNA evidence had been available at his 1995 trial.
Skinner was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons, Randy Busby and Elwin Caler, in 1993 at their Pampa home. Attorneys for Skinner had argued for DNA testing in his case for years, and state prosecutors agreed to testing in 2012. Prosecutors argued this year that the new DNA evidence would not have changed the jury’s decision, and the judge agreed Tuesday, keeping Skinner on death row.
Attorneys for Skinner said they would appeal the decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Skinner, now 52, has asked since 2001 for new DNA testing in the case to support his claims of innocence. After prosecutors agreed to those requests two years ago, state District Judge Steven Emmert held a two-day hearing in February in Gray County on the DNA evidence.
Defense attorneys Douglas Robinson and Robert Owen have long maintained that the actual killer was Twila Busby’s maternal uncle, who is now dead but displayed a history of violent behavior. Skinner has said he was far too intoxicated from vodka and codeine on the night of killings — New Year’s Eve, 1993 — to commit the crimes.
Tuesday’s brief ruling did not provide details of the judge’s rationale. But it validated state attorneys, who had emphasized that the testing identified Skinner’s DNA at 19 additional spots in the crime scene — among them a knife used in the murders — while failing to provide new confirmation that Busby’s uncle had been there.
Skinner’s attorneys countered that the more than 180 new tests, which examined roughly 40 pieces of evidence, raised a variety of doubts about Skinner’s guilt and the state’s theory of the crimes. Three hairs found in Busby’s hand were identified as dissimilar to those of people living in the house and matched the DNA of a maternal relative. Such evidence, they argued, would have convinced a jury that at least a reasonable doubt existed in the case.
State prosecutors said the matches to someone on Busby’s maternal side of the family came from degraded DNA and could have a number of explanations. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, argued that Skinner’s DNA would already have been on many household items, including the knife, because he lived in the house.
The defense also said the court should have taken a look at a bloody windbreaker found at the scene, which police collected as evidence but the state then lost. The testimony of a witness who could identify the jacket as belonging to the uncle was not admitted as evidence, the lawyers said in a statement, criticizing “the overall unfairness of this process” and “bungling by the State.”
“The judge confirmed once again what the State has said all along: it is clear from all the evidence that Hank Skinner is guilty of the murder of Twila Busby and her two sons,” Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott’s office, said in an email. “Skinner got the additional DNA testing he asked for and it further confirmed his guilt. It is time for Skinner to face his court-ordered punishment and quit delaying justice for his victims’ families.”
At the February hearing, much of the testimony centered on the difficulty of extracting results from the DNA testing given the aging and degradation of the evidence, more than half of which produced no results or results that couldn’t be interpreted, the state’s expert said at the time.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted Skinner a stay of execution in 2010 just 20 minutes before he was scheduled to die by legal injection.