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Execution of inmate championed by ‘Innocence Project’ down to the wire

Convicted murderer Hank Skinner had only hours to live but his case "screams of reasonable doubt" after an investigation by journalism students, says David Protess, professor at Northwestern University’s famous Medill Innocence Project.


Texas death row inmate Henry “Hank” Skinner was to be executed on Wednesday, but the US Supreme Court suspended the execution after a plea from France and his defense lawyers to allow further DNA tests

Skinner, a 47-year-old former construction worker who has in the past unsuccessfully pleaded innocent in earlier appeals, was found guilty and convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two sons in 1993.

Skinner’s case has been championed by the celebrated Medill Innocence Project, part of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1999-2000, Professor David Protess and eight of his undergraduate journalism students re-investigated the charges against Skinner and arrived at the conclusion that the entire case “screams of reasonable doubt”.

The non-profit Project was founded in 1999 as part of a journalism class by Protess, where he had students investigate possible miscarriages of justice. It’s famous for freeing 11 prisoners, five of whom were on death row. The non-profit’s work has been so successful that in Jan 2000, when Illinois Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on executions, he credited the Medill Innocence Project for its work on this issue.

In 1999, Protess assigned his students to investigate the Skinner case. They discovered a trial full of holes. “Based on our investigation, there are serious flaws in the case against Hank Skinner,” said Professor Protess in an interview with FRANCE 24. “The main witness recanted, and there’s considerable evidence that another man committed the crime,” he said.

During his 1994 trial, Skinner pleaded not guilty to murdering his girlfriend, Twila Jean Busby, and her two adult sons.

He was convicted after the prosecution presented a neighbour as their main witness and sentenced to death by lethal injection 

Unreliable statements 

Much of the prosecution’s case rested on the neighbour’s testimony. But when Protess’ students investigated her statements, they discovered that she had made it all up. “My students made two trips to the crime scene,” said Protess. 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. She told us the District Attorney of the county had forced her to lie by threatening to charge her as an accomplice,” Protess added.

The prosecution charged that Skinner was present at his girlfriend’s home when the crime occurred. While Skinner has not denied his presence, he maintains that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol and was physically unable to commit the crimes. Blood tests proved his intoxication.

Other DNA evidence that could have proven Skinner’s innocence had also been collected from the scene - but never tested or used in his trial.

"I can't think of any good reason why you would refuse to do DNA testing in a case where there is other strong evidence pointing to innocence," Skinner's attorney Rob Owen told AFP.

"If I were a prosecutor I wouldn't want to put someone to death before I was absolutely sure -- and in this case, the DNA testing is what we need to be sure."

Skinner’s case has become a cause célèbre in the state. “The argument has the editorial support of every major newspaper in Texas,” said Protess.

On Monday, the Texas board of Pardons and Paroles voted 7-0 against Skinner’s request for DNA tests. It didn’t give a reason for its decision – showing that the board “is the ultimate in lack of transparency,” according to Protess.

France has also requested Texas, through its ambassador in Washington DC, to grant Skinner’s stay. He’s married to a French anti-death-penalty activist.


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