Written By: Billy Sinclair
The Henry “Hank” Skinner case is another of those highly-charged death penalty cases in which a claim of “actual innocence” has emerged and galvanized the pro/anti-death penalty debate both in this country and Europe. Less than an hour before a scheduled 2010 execution of Skinner, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Texas condemned inmate a stay so the high court could decide if he could pursue a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action seeking DNA testing of certain evidence in his capital murder case (here). This past March the Supreme Court ruled, without specifically ordering the DNA testing, that Skinner had a right to pursue DNA evidence testing in a § 1983 action. Put briefly, the Supreme Court “judicially ducked” the DNA claim, i.e., whether an inmate has a right to have evidence DNA tested when state law permits such testing. Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer saw this opening and drove through it by seeking and securing a November 9, 2011 execution date for Skinner from a state district court. I have set out the facts of the Skinner case in a previous post and will recount them here:
- On the night of December 31, 1993, Skinner and his girlfriend, Twila Busby, called a friend of Twila’s, Howard Mitchell, and expressed interest in going to a New Year’s Party, but needed a ride.
- When Mitchell arrived at Twila’s residence to pick up the couple, he found Skinner passed out on a couch and was unable to wake him.
- Twila and Mitchell went to Mitchell’s trailer where the party was in progress.
- While at the party, Twila was harassed by an uncle, Robert Donnell, with whom she had had an incestuous affair, who followed her around making rude sexual advances. She asked Mitchell to take her home.
- Mitchell dropped Twila off at her residence between 11:00 and 11:15 p.m.
- At midnight a local police officer was dispatched to investigate a stabbing at a house located across the alley from Twila’s residence. The officer found Twila’s oldest son, Elwin Caler, sitting on the porch at the neighbor’s house. He had a stab wound under his left arm and superficial wounds to his right hand and stomach. He was transported to a local hospital where he died at 12:45 a.m.
- The police found a blood trail from the neighbor’s house to Twila’s front porch. They found blood smeared on a glass front door and a knife on the front porch. The bodies of Twila and her youngest son, Randy Caler, were found inside the house. Twila had been strangled into unconsciousness and beaten at least fourteen times. A blood-and-hair stained ax handle was found near her body. Randy had been stabbed three times in the back as he lay in bed.
- The police also discovered a black plastic bag lying between the couch and coffee table. The bag contained a knife and a towel stained with a wet brownish substance on it.
- The police found a bloody handprint on the door leading out of Randy’s bedroom and into a utility room. Another bloody handprint was found on the door knob of the door leading from the kitchen into the utility room. A third bloody handprint was found on the knob of the door of the utility room that led into the backyard.
- Skinner was arrested at a former girlfriend’s house at approximately 3:00 a.m. He was standing in a closet wearing blood-stained blue jeans and blood stained socks.
- An autopsy revealed all three murders occurred at approximately the same time.
The evidence against Hank Skinner can be summarized as follows:
- Approximately midnight on the night of the murders Skinner showed up at the residence of a former girlfriend named Andrea Reed who lived four blocks from Twila’s residence.
- Skinner told Reed he needed help because he had been shot and stabbed. His pants and shirt were covered with blood.
- Upon removing Skinner’s shirt, she did not find any injuries except for a cut on his right hand. She sutured the wound.
- Skinner told Reed a series of inconsistent stories about how he got the wound.
- Reed tried to call the police but Skinner threatened to kill her if she did.
- Reed would testify at Skinner’s trial that he told her he had found Twila in bed with Twila’s ex-husband, that he and the former husband fought, and that he eventually stomped Twila to death.
- Post-arrest tests established Skinner was both drug and alcohol intoxicated that night.
- Tests on the blood found on Skinner’s clothes proved to be that of Twila and Elwin.
- The bloody handprints found in the residence proved to be Skinner’s.
- Skinner told the police he could not remember what happened that night.
The DNA evidence found at the crime scene which was not tested includes:
- Twila’s fingernail clippings;
- A rape kit;
- Two knives;
- A blood-stained dish towel; and
- A man’s windbreaker with hair and sweat on it.
Skinner’s supporters believe DNA testing of this evidence will link Twila’s uncle, Robert Donnell (who is now deceased), to the murders. The evidence indicating Donnell may have been the killer are:
- Donnell had an incestuous affair with Twila;
- Donnell on the night of the murder made unwelcomed sexual advances toward Twila at a party;
- Donnell was drunk at that party;
- Donnell’s widow said he became violent when drunk;
- Donnell wore a windbreaker similar to the one found at Twila’s residence on the night of the murders; and
- Donnell was seen cleaning out his truck with a hose several days after the murders, including removing the carpet from the vehicle.
District Attorney Switzer does not want the disputed evidence tested. Why? There is no legitimate reason for not testing the evidence. The crime occurred 18 years ago. Why rush Skinner into the death chamber now? If the DNA testing does not produce conclusive evidence exonerating Skinner, he would be executed sometime next year. The stakes in this case are too high not to test the evidence; so test the evidence and let the DNA chips fall where they may.
Personally I believe that Skinner is guilty. I don’t believe DNA testing of the dispute evidence would exonerate him, or even create a remote possibility of his innocence. That’s why the evidence should be tested. DNA evidence found at a crime scene should always be tested as much for exonerating as for incriminating results. Because the State of Texas leads the nation in DNA exonerations—nearly 50 altogether with 11 of those being either condemned or former condemned inmates–there will always be a lingering doubt about Skinner’s guilt long after he is executed.