Death Penalty and Execution News
MARCH 22, 2010:
Isn't a man's life worth an extra 30 days?
Henry W. "Hank" Skinner, convicted of murder in 1994, may be guilty as sin.
Then again, he may be innocent.
But so what?
This is Texas, and Skinner is scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening even though simple testing might prove conclusively that he was not the killer of his live-in girlfriend and her two adult sons 16 years ago in the Panhandle town of Pampa.
Of course, the DNA testing could confirm his guilt, or perhaps be deemed inconclusive.
Either way, would it not make sense to do the testing if it helped us to be sure one way or the other? Why is the state so adamant about not doing it?
Do we permit Texas to make a possible deadly mistake without even trying to learn the whole truth?
It seems almost ironic that Gov. Rick Perry came to Fort Worth on Friday with a freshly issued pardon for a man who was wrongly convicted of raping a Texas Tech student in 1985.
Tim Cole, who was exonerated by DNA testing last year, was not there to receive his pardon -- his mother accepted for him. The test that proved his innocence came too late for Cole. He died in prison while serving a 25-year sentence for that wrongful conviction.
Cole's family fought hard and long to clear his name and has worked tirelessly for legislation that would help keep such miscarriages of justice from happening. A state advisory panel on wrongful convictions was named in his honor.
I was with Cole's family Friday afternoon as his mother, Ruby Session, along with Cole's sister and five brothers accepted the pardon.
After Perry's visit, Session took the governor's pardon to her son Tim -- at his grave.
Session has said no other family should have to go through such an ordeal, especially when DNA testing could have proved a defendant's innocence.
That brings us back to Skinner's case.
He maintains his innocence, but none of us knows for sure whether he bludgeoned Twila Busby to death and fatally stabbed her two sons on New Year's Eve, 1993. Skinner's attorneys argue he was convicted on "entirely circumstantial" evidence even while untested evidence remains sealed. Prosecutors and the courts have refused to permit a forensic examination for DNA as Skinner's execution date draws near.
Last week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to intervene in the case, so hope lies with the U.S. Supreme Court and Perry.
Lawyers for Skinner officially asked the governor this month to grant a 30-day reprieve and order DNA testing on evidence that prosecutors say still exists.
In addition to the problematic trial evidence, the attorneys offer evidence to prove that Skinner was too incapacitated by alcohol and drugs to have committed the crimes even though he was in the house when they occurred.
Students of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, who investigated the case in 1999 and 2000, helped uncover some of the disturbing revelations in the case.
The state's star witness, a woman whose home Skinner went to after he left the crime scene, recanted her testimony on tape. She has repeated, under oath, that she lied after authorities intimidated her.
Several witnesses believe, as was suggested during the trial, that the dead woman's uncle was the killer, and it has been suggested that a windbreaker found next to Busby's body belonged to him. Again, prosecutors never followed up on those allegations, attorneys say.
But the most crucial evidence -- seven items, in fact -- could be the most revealing if only tested for DNA: 1) vaginal swabs taken from Busby; 2) Busby's fingernail clippings; 3) a knife found on the front porch of Busby's home; 4) a knife found in a plastic bag in the living room; 5) a dishtowel also found in the bag; 6) the windbreaker; and 7) hairs found in Busby's hands.
Hair that was introduced at trial, by the way, was not Skinner's.
This overwhelming information could give new insight into the case, not to mention other things in the lawyers' petition to the governor.
Texas has waited this long; what's wrong with taking an extra 30 days if it could get to the truth?
"I'm not an advocate of Hank Skinner," law professor Robert C. Owen wrote in the appeal to the governor. "If DNA tests could remove the uncertainty about Skinner's guilt -- one way or the other -- there's not a good reason in the world not to do it."
I totally agree.
As a resident of this state, and with Tim Cole constantly on my mind, I don't want the death of another innocent man on my hands -- or my conscience.
(source: Opinion, Bob Ray Sanders, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Mar. 20)