MARCH 23, 2010:
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Testing Phobia: Texas Set to Execute Another Innocent Man
The bloody-minded, death-obsessed state of Texas, which has already demonstrably executed at least one innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham (who was falsely accused and ultimately killed by the state for the alleged arson "murder" of his two little children when in fact they'd died because of a fire caused by an electrical fault), may be about to execute yet another innocent man.
This time it's Hank Skinner, 47, a man who has spent 16 years on the state's busy death row protesting his innocence in the 1993 New Year's Eve murder of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her 2 sons, aged 20 and 22.
The thing about Skinner's case is it would be relatively easy to prove whether or not he was really the killer of the 3. There are 2 bloody knives that have never been tested for Skinner's DNA--or for the DNA of Twila's uncle, the man who had reportedly made several unwanted sexual advances at her earlier that evening, leading her to leave a party early, and who Skinner claims is the real killer. Nor was semen that was found on Twila Busby, who was raped, or skin found under her fingernails, ever DNA tested to see who they belonged to.
There were, to be sure, plenty of circumstantial reasons at the time to suspect Skinner. It is undisputed that he had been drunk and passed out on the couch in Busby's house shortly before the murders, which occurred in the same room he was in. The drunken Skinner also staggered from the home in Pampa, TX, his hands bloodied, following the killings. But Skinner maintains that he had cut his hand, falling off the couch, and that the blood was his own. He says he had woken up to find Busby and her sons already dead.
Incredibly, police investigators at the crime scene never took fingernail clippings from Busby, nor did they take a vaginal swab at the scene, though she had clearly struggled and had apparently been raped. Skinner's court-appointed trial attorney could and clearly should have sought that DNA testing before or even during his trial, but didn't bother to do so--no surprise, given the low quality of public defender representation provided in Texas, especially at that time. (Incredibly, that defense attorney, Harold Comer, was the same person who, as a district attorney, had earlier had prosecuted Skinner for 2 minor crimes--assault and car theft! Comer had lost his prosecutor's post when he pleaded guilty to mishandling cash seized in drug cases his office had handled.)
But Skinner's current appellate lawyer, Rob Owen, a University of Texas law professor, says that's no reason not to do those tests today, to settle the matter once and for all--before Skinner is executed.
So far, inexplicably, the state of Texas has blocked his efforts to have the testing done. And time is growing very short. Skinner's execution is set for Wednesday, March 24. He and attorney Owen have asked the US Supreme Court to block the execution and to order testing. As Owen told the Los Angeles Times, "In any investigation today, all of this evidence would have been tested for DNA. But why not do the testing now?"
On March 19, 6 men who had spent a collective 67 years on death rows for crimes they were later able to prove they did not commit gathered to call on Texas to do the right thing, and allow time for DNA testing of the evidence in Skinner's case.
Curtis McCarty, who himself spent 21 years on Oklahoma's death row waiting to die, only to finally get DNA testing of evidence that finally proved his innocence, says, "When evidence is available to be tested, it is criminal and unconstitutional not to test it."
The gratuitously cruel attitude of the state of Texas, where the court of appeals rejected Skinner's request for DNA testing, and where Gov. Rick Perry has been unwilling to intervene, has been clearly illustrated in its treatment of Skinner's wife, Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, who has been barred for nearly 22 months from visiting her husband on death row, on the technicality that she is a foreigner (she is a French national).
Skinner came within a week of execution in February, when a state judge delayed the date for a month to allow his appeal to the US Supreme Court.
To take action on this outrageous case, and call on Gov. Perry to grant Skinner's reasonable request to have the evidence in his case DNA tested, go to:
here Change dot org Innocence Project
(source: Oped News--- DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist. He is author of "Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal" (Common Courage Press, 2003). His latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). His work is available at thiscantbehappening dot net)
The Prisoner's Wife
She would prefer to talk only about him. That everyone forget about their marriage, the intimate relationship of this impossible couple, between a French documentary filmmaker and a Texas prisoner moldering on death row for 15 years and who has no more than a few hours left. She would like for him to remain just him, Hank Skinner, number 99143, found guilty of a triple murder committed in 1993 and which he says he did not commit. He, that 47-year-old construction worker whom she can only see behind the Plexiglas of a visiting room, who has become a symbol of the dysfunction of a system, and today, more than ever, hangs on a hypothetical last minute reprieve from the Supreme Court or the State Governor.
Sitting in a restaurant by the side of a Texas freeway, Sandrine Ageorges is a 49-year-old woman, with a gaunt face and an impressive power of expression. The execution of her husband has been set for Wednesday, March 24th, at the end of the day. She no longer sleeps. A 1st date had been set for February 24th, but an appeals court ordered a last minute stay.
Then too, she had come from France, right here, with fear in her belly, moved in for the umpteenth time with a woman friend in Houston, into what she calls her second home. With the announcement of the stay, she had told herself that she was "more than happy" but couldn't help thinking that this new agony imposed on her man was perhaps worse than death itself.
She knows what she is talking about. Sandrine Ageorges has been a militant for the abolition of the death penalty for more than 30 yeaars. She has lost count of the cases that she has followed and defended, the prisoners with whom she has maintained written or telephone correspondence. An obsessive commitment which seized her in adolescence, in 1976 precisely, when she discovered on television the portrait of Christian Ranucci, sentenced to death and guillotined during the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. "I haven't stopped being angry ever since," she says.
After a period with Amnesty International, in London, and the birth of a daughter, she became production director in the audiovisual area. In 1995, a friend encouraged her to read an article in the magazine Télérama on the Lamp of Hope Association, grouping those sentenced to death in Texas. She contacted them, decided to translate the quarterly newsletter that they wrote up with local militants.
Sandrine Ageorges began writing letters to 3 inmates: Gene Hathorn, whose sentence has just been commuted to life in prison after 33 years on death row; Robert Fratta, sentenced to death for the second time at the end of a 2nd trial in 2009; and Hank Skinner.
When she read his 1st letter, Sandrine Ageorges was filled with emotion. "I didn't fall in love, I prefer to say that we immediately found each other." He wrote her long, frequent letters. She followed the pace. For 5 years they got to know each other. She, leading figure in the abolitionist movement in France, he that "bohemian with a rebellious character."
On the legal level, the Skinner case presents directly all the elements of a bad thriller: a slap-dash trial, a procedure marked by irregularities, a court appointed lawyer, incompetent and corrupt. Hank Skinner fit the profile of the ideal culprit. A loudmouth. Alcoholic. And the man had already been in trouble with the law for petty larceny when, during that night of December 31, 1993, the police found, in his house, the body of his girlfriend, her head smashed with an axe handle, and 2 of her children stabbed to death.
He says he spent the night at home, but remembers nothing. His clothes were stained with blood. He had a cut on his hand. And a neighbor accused him of having threatened her, to keep her from calling the sheriff.
In court, Hank Skinner proclaimed his innocence, but he was sentenced to death in 1995, after two hours of deliberation. Since, other lawyers have taken up the case, have done other investigations. A toxicological analysis, done by an FBI expert, shows that Hank Skinner had ingested, that evening, enough vodka and codeine to make him incapable of standing up without help.
In 1997 the neighbor recanted, saying that she had been pressured by the police to incriminate Hank Skinner. Other disturbing facts, several elements found at the scene of the crime were never tested for DNA, which could have proved him innocent. Worse, his girlfriend’s uncle, who has since died, known for his violent past and who had sexually harassed his niece during the New Year’s Eve party, was never questioned.
Time presses. Sandrine Ageorges counts the 8 appeals, all rejected. Years of legal procedure which have only brought Hank Skinner closer to his execution. "An unbearable torture," she says.
One day they talked about marriage. "If you need that, we'll do it," she told him. He sent her his request in June 2008. The letter had barely been sent when the prison warden forbade Sandrine Ageorges to visit. The marriage would take place by proxy, in Houston, 4 months later, in the presence of a member of the French consular staff.
She would not say anything about it. Hank's lawyers and the associations she worked with would not be notified. She claims she doesn't want anything to do with those women they call "killer groupies," married to men in prison.
For the moment she says she is still hanging on and wants to believe in a last intervention by the Supreme Court, to finally order the DNA tests. On Wednesday, she will not attend the executioin, if it takes place. Hank did not put her on the list - "to protect me”", she whispers. She will wait outside, in front of the high walls of Huntsville’s main prison, where they kill those sentenced to death in Texas.
Afterward? She thinks about it. She knows that she will call a New York lawyer to recover the evidence and do the famous DNA tests. Even after his death, she will continue to fight for him, for the truth, the principles of human justice. And she will still bother people.
(source: Le Monde, Paris, France)