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DNA Hearing Brings Death Row Inmate's Case Closer to Resolution

During a two-day DNA hearing that ended Tuesday, prosecutors argued tests confirmed Hank Skinner’s guilt in a 20-year-old triple murder, but his lawyers said the results raised too many questions to allow him to be executed.

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PAMPA — Two days of painstakingly detailed testimony about DNA analysis have brought the 20-year-old case against death row inmate Hank Skinner closer to resolution.

DNA analysts for Skinner and for state prosecutors from the Texas attorney general’s office spent Monday and Tuesday in the historic Gray County Courthouse explaining to state district Judge Steven Emmert the significance of more than 180 tests on about 40 items of evidence from a 1993 New Year’s Eve triple murder. Prosecutors argued that the tests only confirmed Skinner’s guilt, while lawyers for the 51-year-old defendant said the results raised enough questions about the identity of the perpetrator that a jury would not have condemned him to death.

Skinner was convicted in 1995 of strangling and bludgeoning to death his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and stabbing to death her two adult sons, Elwin Caler and Randy Busby. Skinner has long proclaimed his innocence, saying that he was nearly comatose from a mixture of vodka and codeine on the night of the crime and that he couldn’t have overpowered the victims. Since 2001, Skinner has sought DNA testing that he contends could bolster his theory that the killer was Busby’s maternal uncle, who has since died but had a history of violence.

“We don’t have to prove innocence,” said Skinner’s lawyer, Rob Owen, from the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University Law School. Instead, they must convince the court that had the DNA evidence tested in recent years been available at the 1995 trial, the jury would have had reasonable doubt about Skinner’s guilt. State prosecutors agreed to testing in 2012, and the evidence was analyzed in 2012 and 2013.

Much of the testimony about the DNA analysis in the case focused on the degradation and age of the evidence available. The state's expert, Brent Hester, a forensic scientist from the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Lubbock laboratory, said that more than half of the items tested either produced no results or produced results that couldn’t be interpreted.

“There’s a vast amount of DNA in this case that is either weak or degraded,” Hester said.

Of the tests that produced results, the majority, he explained, contained DNA that matched that of Skinner, the victims or others who had handled the evidence, like state officials and lawyers involved in the case.

Edward Marshall, chief of the AG’s criminal appeals division, said the state identified Skinner’s DNA at 19 new locations at the crime scene. His DNA was identified on a knife blade used in the crime, on doorknobs, in blood smears on the walls, on a cassette tape found in the home, on a dresser and on bloody tennis shoes. 

“We significantly strengthened our case for Mr. Skinner’s guilt,” Marshall said.

Prosecutors also worked to dispel Skinner’s theory about Busby’s uncle, Robert Donnell.

“We demonstrated that there’s no evidence that Robert Donnell was ever at that crime scene,” Marshall said.

Prosecutors dismissed as “red herrings” test results indicating the presence of DNA from another person, someone on the maternal side of Busby’s family. The DNA in those results, Hester said, was badly degraded. The extraneous DNA, he said, could have a number of explanations.

“One of them is that somebody else came in and did this assault,” he said. “There are any number of other possibilities.”

Skinner’s lawyers contended that it only made sense for Skinner’s DNA to be found throughout the crime scene, since he lived at the home with the victims. For example, long before the crime, Skinner could have deposited his DNA on the knife used in the stabbing when making a sandwich.

“We don’t know the source of Henry Skinner’s DNA,” said Julie Heinig, assistant lab director and DNA technical leader at Ohio-based DNA Diagnostic Center.

Skinner's lawyers said the fact that DNA from Skinner’s blood at the crime scene — he had a gash on his hand, which he has said came from a shard of glass on the floor — was not mixed with blood from the victims also supported his claims of innocence. Had he brutally attacked them, their blood would have been found with his on the stains, they said.

And they argued that the presence of another person’s DNA on carpet and on a dishtowel found near the victims’ bodies at the crime scene was critical evidence that someone else could have been the killer.

The fact those DNA profiles were so weak could, in part, be due to the passage of time and exposure of the evidence to rodents and insects, a fact Owen blamed on state prosecutors who fought from 2001 to 2012 against Skinner’s request for testing in the case.

Another major error prosecutors made, Owen said, was losing a windbreaker that police found at the scene of the crime. The jacket resembled one Donnell often wore, but when DNA testing began in 2012, it had disappeared from the evidence file. Emmert would not allow testimony about the jacket because DNA testing was not conducted on it.

Owen said Skinner should not be punished for the state’s failure to properly preserve evidence. 

“They should have to accept those consequences,” Owen said.

Emmert did not rule on the evidence immediately after the hearing but is expected to issue findings in a couple of months. Either Skinner or state prosecutors could appeal Emmert’s ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court.

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