All she could do was cry. The day after Kristen Keaton first met her dad, death row inmate Hank Skinner, the U.S. Supreme Court spared his life.
“I’m just so excited, and I thank God,” said the 26-year-old mother and accountant who lives in North Carolina. “I’m so relieved.”
Skinner was set to die Wednesday for the 1993 murders of his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two mentally disabled adult sons — a massacre he says he did not commit. For more than a decade, Skinner has been asking Texas courts to test a slew of DNA evidence that was not analyzed during his 1995 trial. His entreaties have been repeatedly rejected. In the days before his death, Gov. Rick Perry’s office was inundated with thousands of letters from around the world requesting such testing. Some state lawmakers asked Perry to postpone the execution to allow for analysis of the evidence. But he didn’t have to act on Wednesday. About an hour before Texas officials were scheduled to push a poison cocktail through Skinner’s veins, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay.
Skinner got the news as he was eating his last meal at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Walls Unit in Hunstville. Officials there said he was tucking in to a cheeseburger that was among the smorgasbord of items he ordered to eat before his execution: a salad with ranch dressing and bacon bits, Popeye’s chicken, fried catfish, onion rings and a chocolate milkshake. “I had made up my mind I was going to die,” Skinner said. “I feel like I really won today.”
The court issued an indefinite stay, but it did not agree to accept Skinner’s case. The court said it needed more time to review Skinner’s claims and to decide whether to intervene. “This action suggests that the court believes there are important issues that require closer examination,” said Rob Owen, Skinner’s attorney and co-director of the University of Texas School of Law's Capital Punishment Clinic. “We remain hopeful that the court will agree to hear Mr. Skinner’s case and ultimately allow him the chance to prove his innocence through DNA testing.”
While prosecutors tested some DNA evidence — blood samples from Skinner’s clothing that placed him at the scene of the crime — a pile of DNA evidence went unexamined, including a rape kit, murder weapons and other biological samples found the night of the murders.
On New Year’s Eve 1993, police in the tiny Panhandle town of Pampa found Busby sprawled on the living room floor in her small home, raped and strangled, her face and head bashed more than a dozen times with an ax handle. One of her sons lay in his bed, stabbed in the back. The other son died from stab wounds after he crawled to find help at a neighbor’s house.
Investigators immediately focused on Skinner, a known drug and alcohol abuser with a history of petty crime. Two years later, jurors in Fort Worth convicted him in less than two hours, after learning the victims’ blood was on his clothes and hearing testimony from an ex-girlfriend who said Skinner admitted he kicked Busby to death.
But toxicology tests showed that Skinner was nearly comatose from a mix of vodka and codeine the night of the murders. He argues he was unconscious on the couch while the real murderer attacked Busby and her sons. And the ex-girlfriend who testified against him later recanted her story.
Skinner is convinced that the actual killer was Busby’s uncle, Robert Donnell. Donnell, who died in a 1997 car crash, had a violent history, an incestuous relationship with Busby and had made unwanted drunken advances toward her at a party the night of the murders.
Skinner’s case first took on national prominence in 2000, when a group of students from David Protess’ Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University came to Texas to investigate Skinner’s claims. The students’ work had led to the exoneration of 11 Illinois inmates, including five who were on death row, between 1996 and 2000.
In Texas, they interviewed Andrea Reed, the state’s star witness, who had recanted her trial testimony that Skinner admitted to killing Busby. She told them she felt pressured by prosecutors to implicate Skinner, so she lied at trial. The students also talked to Donnell’s widow, who said he became violent when he drank. Others in the community told them Donnell often wore a windbreaker similar to one found at the crime scene. Neighbors reported seeing Donnell, within a week of the murders, cleaning his truck with a hose and stripping the carpet. And the students discovered several pieces of DNA evidence that were never tested.
After his students’ investigation, Protess began pressuring the state to test the DNA, to ensure that Texas had convicted the right man. He offered to pay. The state did some additional testing, but a rape kit from Busby, biological material under her fingernails, hair and sweat on a man’s windbreaker, a bloody towel and knives found at the scene remained untested.
Skinner and his attorneys have pleaded again and again with the courts to allow the testing. Skinner’s original trial lawyer, Harold Comer, a former district attorney who had prosecuted two previous cases against him, had decided not to have the items tested. He said in a recent interview that he was worried the results would be incriminating. The DNA that had been tested had already shown Skinner was in the house during the killings. “I’ve been at it 50 years, so I have an instinct, or a feeling, for what’s good for my client,” Comer said. “I don’t second-guess that decision at all.”
Prosecutors argued, and the courts agreed, that Skinner had his chance at the initial trial to have the DNA tested. This week, as the days wound down to the execution, pressure mounted on Perry to grant a reprieve and force the DNA testing. After the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously declined to recommend a reprieve or a commutation for Skinner, the Supreme Court and Perry were Skinner’s last hopes.
On Tuesday, two state lawmakers sent Perry letters urging him to grant a reprieve, especially in the wake of recent controversy over wrongful convictions in Texas. National media attention this year has swirled around the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for an arson that killed his three young daughters. Experts have said the evidence used to convict Willingham was faulty. Last week, Perry presented Tim Cole’s family a posthumous pardon. Cole died of an asthma attack while serving time for a rape that DNA evidence later showed he never committed. In a letter to Perry, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, wrote: “In honor of Tim Cole, I ask that you give Mr. Skinner a 30-day reprieve so that DNA testing can be performed and we can be absolutely certain that Mr. Skinner is truly guilty — before it’s too late.”
With the Supreme Court’s decision, Kristen Keaton said she had renewed hope that the truth about her dad would be discovered. Keaton said she knew her dad was on death row most of her life. She wrote him letters over the years, and they talked on the phone a handful of times.
But between the expense of traveling to Texas, her own anger at her father’s absence, and apprehension about visiting death row, Keaton said, she never made her way to meet him. “I feel like I should go see him before I never have that opportunity again,” she said on Tuesday as she drove to Livingston to meet him.
When she discovered a week ago that he was going to be executed, Keaton rushed to find a flight to Texas. “I’m not a naive person. So, just because he’s my dad doesn’t make me think he’s completely innocent,” she said Tuesday. “It’s hard for me to judge his character, because I don’t know his character.”
After talking with Skinner, reuniting with her half-sister Natalie Skinner — the two had lived most of their lives in the same Virginia county, but had only met once in passing at Wal-Mart — Keaton said she was convinced her dad was innocent. For her, the experience was enlightening. Not only because she got to see Skinner in person, but because she also got to learn about herself. “It’s odd, because we do still both look like him,” Keaton said of herself and her sister. “She has some features, and I have the others.”
Keaton, Natalie Skinner and Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, his wife, met one last time with Skinner on Wednesday before he was transported to Huntsville. He tried to prepare them for what was ahead. “One thing my dad told me is, 'If I die tonight, you’ve got to move on with your life — you’ve got to accept it and move on,'” Keaton said Wednesday, choking back tears, as she drove from Livingston to Huntsville, where the execution chamber is located. She was struggling to come to terms with the reality that her father would likely die in a matter of hours. “I’ve been without him all these years, but it’s just different knowing he’s not going to be there.”
Skinner called Keaton shortly before 5 p.m., about an hour before he was set to meet the deadly needle. They said their final goodbyes, and she sobbed.
Fifteen minutes later she was still crying, and her phone rang again. It was Skinner, and he asked if she was sitting down, because she wasn’t going to believe what he had to say. He told her the Supreme Court had granted the stay. She wept.
Skinner’s fight isn’t over, but for Keaton, it was a jubilant ending to a rollercoaster week. Thursday she will fly back home to North Carolina and keep up with her dad’s case from afar, but Wednesday night she said she could finally relax. “I think I’m just going to sit and stare at something for while.”