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Hearing to Look at DNA Evidence in Skinner Case

After more than a decade of fighting for DNA tests and two years of analysis on decades-old evidence, a court in Pampa will hear evidence that death row inmate Hank Skinner says should stop his execution.

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Lawyers for death row inmate Hank Skinner will tell a Gray County district court judge on Monday that had a 1995 jury seen the results of more than 100 DNA tests conducted since his conviction, it would not have sentenced their client to die.

Across the courtroom, state prosecutors will argue that the same DNA tests confirm Skinner’s guilt in the 1993 New Year’s Eve slaying of Twila Busby, his live-in girlfriend, and her two sons.

After more than a decade of fighting over DNA testing and nearly two years of analysis of two-decade-old biological material, evidence that Skinner says should prove his innocence will be the focus of court proceedings. Skinner, 51, has maintained that he was too inebriated from a mixture of vodka and codeine on the night of the crime to stab, strangle and beat the victims to death. 

Prosecutors from the Texas attorney general’s office agreed in 2012 to allow DNA testing in the case after years of fighting the requests. From 2012 to 2013, Texas Department of Public Safety laboratories conducted 188 DNA tests on 40 pieces of evidence, including fingernail clippings, a knife used in the murders, doorknobs, clothing and furniture. More than half of the tests, though, produced no usable results. One DPS analyst reported that many items had been stored haphazardly during the 18 years between the crime and testing and showed damage from rodents or insects. 

Prosecutors, though, point to tests that identified Skinner’s blood at 17 additional locations at the crime scene. His DNA profile also appeared on all eight samples taken from a bloody knife. 

“It is clear from the evidence that additional DNA testing has significantly strengthened the evidence of Skinner’s guilt,” Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said in an email.

Skinner’s lawyers argue the DNA tests bolster the inmate’s contention that a third party, likely Twila Busby’s uncle, who they allege had a history of violence and had been making unwanted sexual advances toward her the night of the crime. And they say that because prosecutors were unable to find one crucial piece of evidence from the crime scene, it may be impossible to resolve persistent doubts about Skinner's guilt. 

Police found a windbreaker at the scene of the crime, and Skinner has said it was similar to one that Busby’s uncle, who has since died, regularly wore. When DNA testing began, law enforcement officials were unable to locate the windbreaker.

“That was a key piece of evidence and the state’s failure to preserve it is inexplicable,” lawyers Rob Owen, from Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Law School, and Douglas Robinson, from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, said in an email.

Skinner’s lawyers have also argued in court filings that three hairs found at the scene came not from Skinner or the victims but from the “maternally-related line of persons that included the victims.” Those results, they say, bolster the notion that the killer was likely Busby’s maternal uncle. 

In court Monday and Tuesday, lawyers for the state and Skinner will present testimony from forensic analysts, DNA experts and other witnesses. 

State lawyers will argue that the evidence only reaffirms Skinner’s guilt and that he is attempting simply to stall the fate a jury long ago decided he deserves.

“With or without the jacket, the evidence clearly implicates Henry Skinner, and no amount of manufactured doubt from his lawyers can prove otherwise,” Strickland said.

Skinner will not attend the hearing, his lawyers explained, because his health is fragile. His lawyers will tell the court that the DNA evidence would have created enough doubt that jurors would not have convicted Skinner and that the state’s inability to locate key evidence should prevent them from inflicting the ultimate punishment.

The judge will not issue a ruling directly after this week's hearing, but will do so after both sides submit briefs to the court.

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Courts Criminal justice Death penalty