Texas man convicted of killing 3 seeks reprieve from pending execution for DNA to be tested

By Michael Graczyk, AP
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Condemned Texas man seeks reprieve for DNA testing

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Condemned prisoner Hank Skinner was headed to Texas death chamber Wednesday, barring a halt to his scheduled execution by the U.S. Supreme Court or Gov. Rick Perry so DNA testing he insisted could clear him of a triple slaying more than 16 years ago could be conducted.

Skinner, 47, faced lethal injection for the bludgeoning and strangling of his girlfriend, Twila Jean Busby, 40, and the stabbings of her two adult sons at their home in the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa on New Year’s Eve in 1993.

Skinner, splattered with the blood of at least two of the victims, was arrested about three hours after the bodies were found. Police following a blood trail found him in a closet at the trailer home of a woman he knew.

The former oil field and construction worker said he was present when the three were killed but couldn’t have committed the murders. Skinner said a combination of vodka and codeine left him passed out on a couch and physically incapable of clubbing Busby 14 times with an ax handle and stabbing her sons, Elwin “Scooter” Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20.

“I’ve been framed ever since,” he said last week from a visiting cage outside death row. “They’re fixing to kill me for something I didn’t do.”

Prosecutors argued Skinner wasn’t entitled to testing of evidence that wasn’t analyzed before his 1995 trial. Courts over the years since his conviction have agreed, rejecting his appeals.

Skinner’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court for a reprieve so they could pursue in federal district court a civil case against the Gray County District Attorney, whose office prosecuted Skinner initially. That suit seeks to make evidence available for testing.

They made a similar appeal to Perry.

Skinner’s attorneys wanted DNA testing on vaginal swabs taken from Busby at the time of her autopsy, fingernail clippings, a knife found on the porch of Busby’s house and a second knife found in a plastic bag in the house, a towel with the second knife, a jacket next to Busby’s body and any hairs found in her hands that were not destroyed in previous testing. Only the hairs were tested previously and those results were inconclusive, according to court documents.

Skinner’s trial lawyer, Harold Comer, a former Gray County prosecutor, chose not to test all the evidence because he feared the outcome would be more damaging to his client.

Comer said he now favors the testing but defended his trial strategy.

“I would make the same decision with the same circumstances again,” he said. “It might be well at this juncture to allow the testing, but not at the trial.”

The trial prosecutor, John Mann, who has since died, also did not have all the evidence tested. Current District Attorney Lynn Switzer, now the defendant in Skinner’s lawsuit, declined to comment about the case as Skinner’s execution neared. Lawyers representing her office challenged the suit as improper. All the items were available for testing at the time of Skinner’s trial, they said.

Skinner would be the fifth person executed this year in Texas, the nation’s most active capital punishment state. Twenty-four people were put to death in Texas in 2009.

On Tuesday, Skinner spent several hours with Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, a 49-year-old French national who’s been his wife since 2008. Her visits this week were the first for her in months because she was banned for prison rules infractions, Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said.

France’s ambassador to the U.S. asked Perry to pardon Skinner or halt the execution, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Wednesday. President Nicolas Sarkozy also offered “France’s support” to Skinner’s wife, Valero said. France opposes capital punishment.

Criticism of the death penalty in Texas escalated in the past year amid questions about evidence that led to the 2004 execution of convicted arson-murderer Cameron Todd Willingham. Prosecutors insist evidence in that case was solid, but an arson expert concluded the investigation was so flawed that its finding the fire was set deliberately could not be supported. And when the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to take up the expert’s report, Perry replaced most members of the panel.

Besides victims’ blood on his clothing, Skinner’s bloody handprints were found in the bedroom of Busby’s slain sons and on a door leading out the back of the house. Prosecutors suggested Skinner, who had a serious hand wound, cut his hand when a knife slipped during one of the murders. Skinner said he cut it on broken glass.

Skinner and his lawyers said the killer could have been Twila Busby’s uncle, Robert Donnell, who died in 1997. Donnell, who has been described in court documents as violent when drinking, attended the same New Year’s Eve party as Busby while Skinner was passed out at home. She left the party after complaining that Donnell made crude sexual remarks toward her. Partygoers later noticed Donnell also had left.

will not be displayed