Examining the Hank Skinner case
The 1995 triple-murder trial of Henry “Hank” Skinner, whose death sentence was recently stayed by the US Supreme Court, was riddled with flaws, according to defence lawyers. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the details of the high-profile case.
On New Year’s Eve 1993, police in the little Texan town of Pampa found the body of a badly beaten-up woman lying on her living room. One of her adult sons was stabbed in the back in his bed. Another son had died from stab wounds as he tried to crawl to the neighbour’s house.
Investigators found evidence that the woman, Twila Jean Busby, was raped and her head was bashed by an axe handle.
Suspicion immediately fell on Busby’s live-in boyfriend, Henry “Hank” Skinner, a former oil and construction worker who had a known history of drug and alcohol abuse and of petty crime.
Two years later, a Texas court convicted him after a prosecution witness, a neighbour named Andrea Reed, told the court that Skinner had admitted to her that he had kicked his girlfriend to death.
Skinner, who pleaded innocent at the trial, was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
A star witness recants her testimony
The Skinner case would have received little notice if it did not attract the attention of David Protess, the director of an extraordinary journalism programme based at Chicago’s Northwestern University.
In 2000, students of Northwestern’s Medill Innocence Project travelled to Texas, where they met with Skinner, interviewed witnesses and combed through piles of documents. They returned to Chicago with a dossier full of case flaws.
Reed, Skinner’s former neighbour and the prosecution’s star witness, recanted her trial testimony during her interviews with the students.
“The main witness told them that she had lied on the witness stand … that [Skinner] had not threatened her [as the prosecution claimed] and that he was severely impaired,” Protess explained in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “She told us the district attorney of the county had forced her to lie by threatening to charge her as an accomplice,” he added.
Too inebriated to commit the crime
During the trial, the prosecution charged that Skinner was present at his girlfriend’s home when the crime occurred.
While Skinner did not deny his presence, he maintained that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol and was physically unable to commit the crimes.
Busby was strangled so forcefully that her larynx and the hyoid bone in her throat were broken. She was then struck with an axe handle 14 times, the court documents said. There was no evidence of her having been kicked to death, as Reed had testified that Skinner confessed.
In a court filing to the US Supreme Court requesting a stay on his March 24 execution, Skinner’s lawyers noted that, “while attacking Ms. Busby, the perpetrator had to contend with the presence of her 6-foot, 6-inch, 225-pound son, Elwin Caler, who blood spatter analysis showed was in the immediate vicinity of his mother as she was being beaten.”
The filing went on to add that, "the victims' injuries show that whoever murdered them must have possessed considerable strength, balance and coordination."
Toxicology tests showed that Skinner was nearly comatose from a mix of vodka and codeine the night of the murders.
Enter the uncle and untested DNA evidence
The team of eight Medill Innocence Project students who investigated the case found that the victim had complained on the night of the murder of being harassed by her uncle, who Skinner has always claimed committed the crime.
The uncle, Robert Donnell, did not come under investigation, and died in an auto accident in 1997.
Donnell had a violent history and guests at a party that Busby attended the night of her murder said they last saw Donnell making passes at his niece and stalking her.
Students from the Medill Innocence Project also discovered that DNA evidence that had been collected from the crime scene was never tested or used in Skinner's trial.
That evidence included vaginal swabs and fingernail clippings from Busby, hairs found in her hand and two knives found at the scene.
The testing of the DNA evidence was the critical issue that helped Skinner obtain a March 24 US Supreme Court execution stay order.
Skinner had been scheduled to be executed in Huntsville, Texas, by lethal injection at 6 pm local time and was having his dinner when the Supreme Court decision was made, barely an hour before the scheduled execution.
The Supreme Court must now decide if it will take up the case, otherwise a new execution date will be decided, the justices said in a brief decision.