After conducting hundreds of tests on samples of blood, hair, sperm, fingernail clippings and other crime scene evidence, prosecutors in the Texas attorney general's office and lawyers for death row inmate Hank Skinner have signed an agreement this week to allow more DNA testing in the 1993 triple murder for which he was sentenced to death.
The lawyers signed an agreement that allows more advanced DNA testing on samples of carpet from the crime scene, hair found on one of the victims' hands, and blood from Skinner and the other two murder victims.
Skinner was convicted in 1995 of the murders of his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons in Pampa. Skinner has maintained his innocence, arguing 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 sought DNA testing that he contended 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 asked for 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 for the state finally signed an agreement in June 2012 that allowed the testing to begin. Since then, hundreds of test have been conducted. The first two rounds of testing were paid for by the state, and the upcoming third round of tests will be paid for by Skinner's supporters.
A first round of testing in October 2012 did not produce DNA that bolstered Skinner's innocence claims. State lawyers said that those results — including his blood on the handle of a knife from the crime scene — further implicated Skinner. The inmate's lawyers said then that the DNA testing was incomplete and that it indicated that another person may have been at the murder scene.
A second round of testing was completed in February, and prosecutors and defense lawyers again have differing views of what the results reveal about Skinner's role in the crime. In a second advisory, filed with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Tuesday, prosecutors in the AG's office said the tests "produced no exculpatory evidence." Nonetheless, prosecutors said, they agreed to additional testing.
Rob Owen, Skinner's defense lawyers, pointed out that the testing has revealed the DNA of an unknown individual on the carpet of the bedroom where Busby's sons stayed.
"That person is not Mr. Skinner, and could well be the assailant who murdered the brothers and their mother Twila Busby," Owen said in an emailed statement.
Owen also said he was concerned that the AG's advisory filings about incomplete testing outcomes could unfairly prejudice the court before a hearing on the full results once the DNA analysis is complete.
"That DNA testing — to be undertaken pursuant to an agreement of the parties filed with the trial court today — could help confirm that Mr. Skinner is innocent," Owen said. "Until it is completed, no one should draw any conclusions in reliance on the attorney general's premature and one-sided effort to prejudice the fact-finding process."
Skinner has argued that investigators should have looked at Busby's uncle, Robert 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.
But testing has not been done on a man’s jacket found at the scene that matched the description of one that witnesses said Donnell often wore. That item has been lost. Owen has said the jacket is a critical piece of evidence that must be found.
“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 said in a previous statement.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the entity that paid for the DNA testing in the case.