Will Texas Soon Execute Another Innocent Man? Our Reporting Challenges Verdict As Clock Ticks
By David Protess
January 29, 2010
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is under fire for allegedly obstructing an investigation into the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 -- despite forensic tests proving he did not murder his three young children.
Four years earlier, Gary Graham was carried to Texas’ death chamber defiantly proclaiming his innocence in the face of new evidence that even the murder victim’s widow called “reasonable doubt.”
Now the clock is ticking on another Texas death row inmate who has steadfastly maintained his innocence – with credible evidence to support his claim. The condemned man is Henry Watkins “Hank” Skinner, and much of that evidence was unearthed by the Medill Innocence Project and reported in the January 28 and 29 editions of the Texas Tribune, "Case Open" and "Case Open: The Investigation". Yet, Skinner faces death by lethal injection on February 24, less than a month from now.
Texas continues to lead the nation in executions. But will the state earn the dubious distinction of executing five innocents in two decades? Hank Skinner’s fate lies in the hands of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Perry.
Here is a synopsis of the case, spotlighting the evidence developed by Medill student-journalists who traveled to Texas’ death row and to the crime scene in search of the truth. This account will be followed on February 4 by my testimony to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. I will continue to report on the Skinner case on this site until it reaches finality.
Hank Skinner, age 47, was convicted of bludgeoning to death his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and fatally stabbing her two adult sons in their Pampa, Texas home on New Year's Eve of 1993. Skinner was convicted of the crimes in 1994 and sentenced to death in 1995. He is scheduled to be executed on February 24 – twenty-six days from now.
The state's case against Skinner was entirely circumstantial. He has consistently professed his innocence, there was no physical evidence linking him to the murder weapons and no eyewitness or apparent motive for the crime. Skinner indisputably was in the home at the time of the murders, but claims he had passed out from mixing large quantities of alcohol and drugs. When he awoke, he stumbled to a neighbor’s residence to report the murders, according to Skinner.
But the neighbor, Andrea Reed, testified that Skinner made incriminating statements about the crime and ordered her not to call the police. That was enough for the jury to find him guilty, and, although Skinner had no history of violence that would remotely explain the horrific murders (his worst offense was a conviction for assault), he was sentenced to death.
The Medill Innocence Project first became involved in the case in the fall of 1999 when a reporter at the Associated Press in Houston raised questions about Skinner’s guilt. Eight investigative reporting students made two trips to the Panhandle town in 1999-2000 to interview sources and plow through documents. They returned with grave reservations about whether justice had been done.
For one thing, Andrea Reed, the state’s star witness, recanted her trial testimony in an audio-taped interview. Reed told the student-journalists that she had been intimidated by the authorities into concocting a false story against Skinner. “I did not then and do not now feel like he was physically capable of hurting anybody,” Reed said.
For another, toxicology tests on Skinner's blood and statements by experts revealed he would have been nearly comatose on the night of the crimes, certainly lacking the strength, balance and agility to commit the triple homicide. This finding is consistent with Reed’s observation of Skinner when he entered her home after the crime: “He was falling into the walls and stuff. He was staggering, falling into stuff,” she said in the taped interview.
Other residents of Pampa told the student-journalists in videotaped interviews that the more likely perpetrator was Robert Donnell, Twila's uncle. Donnell had been “hitting on” his niece at a New Year’s Eve party shortly before the slayings. Rebuffing his advances, she left the party frightened, her uncle following behind, according to the witnesses. (A close friend of Twila’s said she confided to being raped by her uncle in the past.)
The day after the crime, another witness claimed to have seen Donnell scrubbing the interior of his pick-up truck, removing the rubber floorboards and replacing the carpeting. Perhaps most telling, a windbreaker just like the one the uncle often wore was found at the scene – directly next to his niece’s body. The jacket was covered with human hairs and sweat.
Yet evidence from the windbreaker has never been scientifically tested. Moreover, prosecutors have steadfastly opposed DNA tests on two blood-stained knives, skin cells found underneath Twila’s fingernails and hairs removed from her hand – even though forensic tests on one of the hairs proved it did not come from Skinner. (The physical evidence remains sealed, but the courts have acceded to prosecutors’ demands not to conduct the tests.) In a death row interview with the student-journalists, Skinner said he was innocent and welcomed new tests on the old evidence.
"They have no right to kill me because I'm innocent, innocent, innocent."
Another troubling aspect of the case is the background of Skinner's trial lawyer, Harold Lee Comer. Formerly the District Attorney of Gray County, Comer had prosecuted Skinner for two offenses, theft and assault. After resigning from office and pleading guilty in a drug scandal, Comer was appointed at taxpayer's expense to represent Skinner at his capital murder trial -- without the required hearing to determine whether he had a conflict-of-interest.
The trial judge, a personal friend of Comer's, paid him roughly the same amount to represent Skinner as the former DA owed to the IRS. Comer failed to request DNA testing, or present evidence about the alternative suspect. And, at the sentencing hearing, he failed to object to using Skinner's prior convictions -- which he had prosecuted -- to justify the death penalty.
When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the claim that Skinner had been ineffectively represented by Comer, a Texas court set his execution date. In light of the cases of Cameron Todd Willingham, Gary Graham, Ruben Cantu and Carlos DeLuna, the specter of wrongful executions now hangs over Texas' system of capital punishment.
Will Texas next put to death a man who has steadfastly professed his innocence and whose lawyer was his legal adversary -- without even conducting DNA tests to be sure the right man will be punished for the crime?
Not much time will tell.
|Team Skinner, Class of 2000|
Greg Jonsson. General assignment reporter, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Krista Larson. Africa Desk supervisor, The Associated Press, Johannesburg
Diane Haag Libro. Newspaper reporter for ten years, now the communications director for Volunteers of America of North Louisiana.
Pam Smith. Associate editor, The Recorder newspaper
Manu Bhardwahj. Attorney at law and Special Advisor to the Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of Commerce
Emily Probst. Investigative producer, CNN
Kirsten Searer. Principal of KuComm LTD, a Nevada firm specializing in political communications and advocacy.
(Updated January 31, 2010 1:06 pm CST)