More than a dozen current and former lawmakers, prosecutors, judges, police officers and even a former Texas governor sent a letter today calling on Gov. Rick Perry and other state officials to allow for DNA testing death row inmate Hank Skinner says could prove his innocence.
They asked Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer to halt Skinner's scheduled Nov. 9 execution until the testing is done.
“There is simply no justifiable reason why Texas continues to waste taxpayer dollars in its decade-long fight to prevent scientific testing in Mr. Skinner’s case,” the group wrote. “We implore you to take the lead in the search for truth in this case.”
Skinner was convicted in 1995 of killing his live-in girlfriend and her two sons in Pampa. He has maintained his innocence from the start, arguing that he was too inebriated from a mixture of vodka and codeine to overpower the three victims. He has pleaded with the state for more than a decade to test DNA he argues could show that another man was the killer.
The letter sent today and signed by former Gov. Mark White and current state Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, cites the recent DNA-based exoneration of Michael Morton as an example of the importance of scientific analysis. Morton was convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife Christine Morton. He was released from prison this month, after serving nearly 25 years, based on DNA testing that showed another man likely killed Morton’s wife and another Austin woman. Investigators are currently seeking the man implicated by DNA testing in those killings.
“Testing the DNA evidence in Mr. Skinner’s case is not only common sense, it is a public safety issue of great consequence,” the letter states. “In Mr. Morton’s case, the DNA testing not only proved his innocence, but identified the true perpetrator of the crime.”
In Skinner’s case, DNA evidence presented at the original trial showed his blood was at the scene, and an ex-girlfriend — who later recanted her testimony — told jurors that he confessed to her. Not all the available DNA evidence was tested, though. Among the untested items were a rape kit, biological material from the victim's fingernails, sweat from a man’s jacket resembling one that another potential suspect often wore, a bloody towel and knives. Skinner's trial lawyers worried the results might be incriminating.
For a decade, Skinner has sought DNA testing on the additional items, but the state has refused, citing restrictions in Texas' 2001 post-conviction DNA testing law. Last year, less than an hour before he was to be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay. The high court sent the case back to the federal district court to decide whether Skinner's civil rights were being violated by the state's application of the 2001 DNA law.
State lawmakers, though, made significant changes to that DNA testing law this year, expanding access and eliminating many of the restrictions the state had previously cited in denying Skinner's requests. In the letter, the group of officials said that change was designed with cases like Skinner’s in mind to eliminate procedural barriers to DNA testing that have “gotten in the way of the search for the truth.”
“That legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, not least because polls show that eighty-five percent of Texans agree that prisoners should have broad access to DNA testing,” they wrote.
The federal court in Amarillo on Monday indicated that in light of the changes to the law, it would likely leave the DNA decision to the state court.
Last month, Skinner's lawyers filed a request in Gray County District Court for DNA testing under the new law. They are now awaiting a decision on that request.
The Texas Attorney General's office, which is representing the state, has filed an objection to Skinner's request in state court for DNA testing. The state's lawyers argued that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has already twice denied Skinner's pleas for additional testing and that even if additional testing were done it would not prove Skinner's innocence.
Neither Perry’s office nor the Attorney General’s office provided immediate response to the letter. This story will be updated when responses are available.