DNA testing that death row inmate Hank Skinner sought for more than a decade further implicates him in the New Year’s Eve 1993 triple murder for which he was sentenced to die, according to an advisory that the Texas attorney general’s office filed Wednesday in Gray County state district court.
But a lawyer for Skinner, who was convicted in 1995 of the murders of his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons in Pampa, said the DNA testing is incomplete and indicates that another person may have been at the scene of the crimes.
“We find it troubling that the Attorney General’s Office has seen fit to release partial results of the DNA testing and submit its ‘advisory’ to the court while the DNA testing is still in progress,” Rob Owen, co-director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Capital Punishment Clinic, said in an emailed statement.
Skinner has steadfastly maintained his innocence, claiming that he was unconscious on the couch at the time of the killings, intoxicated from a mixture of vodka and codeine. Beginning in 2000, he pleaded for DNA testing that he argued would prove his claims. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his execution less than an hour before he was scheduled to die and agreed to hear arguments in his case. Skinner sought testing on a slew of 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.
Lawyers for Skinner and the state finally agreed in June to testing. In the advisory filed Wednesday, state lawyers said the DNA results further confirmed that Skinner, 50, was responsible for the murders.
“DNA evidence collected at the crime scene consistently indicated Skinner was guilty of strangling and bludgeoning Ms. Busby to death in the living room of her home on New Year’s Eve 1993,” the advisory states. “Crime scene evidence also showed that Skinner was responsible for the stabbing deaths of Randy Busby and Elwin ‘Scooter’ Caler.”
The AG’s office reported that a rape kit did not indicate that Busby was sexually assaulted, and vaginal swabs did not reveal DNA from any other person. Fingernail scrapings and hairs from Busby’s body also did not reveal another person’s DNA, the advisory states.
The DNA results, state lawyers wrote, also show that Skinner’s blood was found in the back bedrooms of the house, where Randy Busby was found stabbed to death in the back. Skinner’s DNA was identified in blood stains from a tape, in two blood stains on a tennis shoe, a blood stain from the bedspread, a blood stain on a cassette holder and on a blood stain near a dresser in the boys’ bedroom.
Skinner’s DNA was also found on the handle of a bloody knife that was recovered from the front porch of the home, along with DNA from Caler and at least one other contributor, who was not identified.
But testing was not done on a man’s jacket found at the scene, because that item had been lost. Owen has said the jacket is a critical piece of evidence that must be tested, because it looks like one that Twila Busby’s uncle Robert Donnell wore.
Skinner has argued that investigators should have looked at Donnell, who has since died. Donnell had a history of violence, and witnesses reported that he was making advances toward Busby shortly before the murder.
"According to the State, every other single piece of evidence in this case has been preserved,” Owen said previously in a statement about the missing jacket. “It is difficult to understand how the State has managed to maintain custody of items as small as fingernail clippings, while apparently losing something as large as a man's windbreaker jacket.”
Owen told the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in May that if DNA testing on all the evidence pointed to someone other than Skinner, then it could create reasonable doubt about his client's guilt.
Owen said conclusions about Skinner’s guilt cannot be confirmed until all other possible DNA contributors are identified. He said additional testing has been requested to try to identify DNA from unknown contributors that was found both on the bloody knife and on the carpet in the boys’ bedroom.
“All the parties must do everything in their power to make sure Texas does not make an irreversible mistake,” Owen said.
State lawyers had long opposed testing in Skinner’s case, arguing that it could not prove that Skinner was innocent and that it would create an incentive for other guilty inmates to delay justice by seeking DNA testing.
But in May the judges on the nine-member appeals court expressed skepticism of the state’s reticence to allow testing. Shortly after the hearing, the Texas attorney general’s office reversed its decade-long objection to testing and filed an advisory seeking to test DNA in the case.
In Skinner's case, initial DNA testing results in 1995 implicated him by showing that he was at the crime scene, a fact he has not contested. His trial lawyers decided not to seek testing on all of the evidence because they feared it would further implicate him in the crime.
In 2011, Texas post-conviction law was changed to allow defendants who previously chose not to test evidence to seek DNA analysis. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, chairman of the New York-based Innocence Project, sponsored the bill, which he has said was meant specifically for cases like Skinner's.
"The intent of SB 122 — and the reason it passed the Senate unanimously and was endorsed by a broad range of major criminal justice stakeholders — was to ensure we test all the relevant evidence and consider all the relevant facts before we take someone's life," Ellis said in an emailed statement.