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The Brief: March 25, 2010

Yesterday was likely one of the worst days of Hank Skinner's life — before it became what was probably one of the best days.

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THE BIG CONVERSATION

Yesterday was likely one of the worst days of Hank Skinner's life — before it became what was probably one of the best days.

About an hour before the death row inmate was scheduled to be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a stay of execution.

Skinner, who was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two mentally disabled adult sons in 1995, has spent much of his time on death row arguing that DNA evidence would prove his innocence in the crimes. While some evidence was tested and put Skinner at the scene, key pieces that would indicate guilt — a rape kit and fingernail clippings — never were. Efforts to do such testing have been rejected, even after an Arizona firm offered to do such testing for free. Skinner believes the victim's uncle, who died in a 1997 car crash, was the actual killer.

The Tribune's Brandi Grissom reports:

The [Supreme Court] 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'sCapital 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.”

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.

According to officials, Skinner found out about the stay as he was eating a cheeseburger, part of large "last meal" that included a salad with ranch dressing and bacon bits, Popeye’s chicken, fried catfish, onion rings and a chocolate milkshake.

CULLED

• Oops! In appears that when Brian Birdwell discovered he didn't meet the residency requirements to run for the state House, he took an unusual next step — starting a run for the state Senate, which has more stringent requirements. To become a state senator, one must live in the state for at least five years. But a post on Birdwell's own site , dated February 22, 2008, says, “LTC (Ret.) Brian and Mel Birdwell moved to Granbury, TX in June 2007” and he voted in Virginia elections in 2006. That's not stopping the would-be senator, however. His campaign spokeswoman told the Tribune that he'd soon be filing his papers for the special election to replace Sen. Kip Averitt.

• Former state Rep. Borris Miles is back — with eight votes to spare. At least, that's what the official recount says. His longtime opponent, current state Rep. Al Edwards, beat Miles two years ago, after Miles won the seat from Edwards in 2006. Now, after an official recount at Edwards' request, it looks like the two will continue their game of musical chairs when Miles takes back the office.

• Revving up. The state House and Senate will be busy today, despite being out of session. In the House, the Ways and Means committee will meet to discuss sales tax exclusions and tax structures, while Business and Industry will look for ways to increase manufacturing jobs in the state and Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence will examine, among other things, damage calculation for Lyme's disease. Not to be outdown, the Senate Higher Education committee will look at university endowment funds.

"There are many qualified people who could be a senator from Texas — myself included — but I don't think any of us are ready to step in and immediately be as effective as she is now." — Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, the senior House Republican from Texas, on the letter the House Republican delegation sent to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, asking her to remain in the Senate.

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