|Polk County Enterprise - Local News
Copyright 2011 - Polk County Publishing Company
Death row inmate hoping for stay to allow DNA testing
BY VALERIE REDDELL
LIVINGSTON — The list of Texans that support a stay of execution for Henry Watkins Skinner is gaining new, high-profile members every day. Skinner was sentenced to die in 1995 for killing his live-in girlfriend, Twyla Busby, and her two sons Randolph Busby and Elwin Caler at his home in Pampa. His execution is scheduled for Nov. 9, but former Gov. Mark White and more than a dozen current and former lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer, last week asking him to delay the execution so that DNA testing can be conducted. Skinner contends that testing additional items found at the scene could exonerate him. Among the untested items are a rape kit, biological material from the victim’s fingernails, sweat from a man’s jacket resembling one that another potential suspect often wore, a bloody towel and knives, according to an Oct. 27 report in Texas Tribune by Brandi Grissom. Prosecutors presented DNA evidence at the original trial that showed his blood was at the scene. One local official who is familiar with capital murder cases said he believes the defense has had ample opportunity to present DNA evidence at trial, and he believes the decision not to test some of those items was part of the defense’s strategy to prolong the case. A new law passed by the Texas Legislature opens the door for many death row inmates to obtain additional DNA testing, but as of Tuesday, there was no decision as to whether that law would apply to Skinner. Death penalty opponents point out that while most Texans support the use of the death penalty, they claim 85 percent want inmates to have “broad access to DNA testing if it could possibility exonerate them,” according to a report by Public News Service. Skinner’s is the first scheduled execution since Michael Morton was exonerated by DNA testing that showed it was likely another man was responsible for the beating death of Morton’s wife Christine in 1986. Morton was released from prison in October and former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson is being questioned as to whether his office withheld other evidence that would have prevented a guilty verdict. One of the local criminal justice officials asked to comment about the Skinner case pointed out that prosecutors are duty-bound to defend the state’s position throughout appeals. “They have to protect the integrity of the case and few people go to that gurney without seeking relief on every possible issue,” the official said. “You have no idea how many frivolous post-conviction claims are raised. They want additional DNA testing, they claim they had ineffective counsel. They never run out of claims.” Another local resident with experience in death penalty cases and has followed news reports about Skinner’s appeals believes most Texans would support the additional testing. “If the science is there that can give you certainty, why not take advantage of it,” the official said. However, opponents of the measure point out that the additional tests could reveal DNA of another person that handled items at the crime scene or had consensual sex with the victim and had no role in the murders. “The possibilities of finding genetic material from another person are endless,” one official said. The other element of this week’s debate in the Skinner case is an alleged strategy by attorneys who represent capital murder suspects to make death penalty cases so expensive to carry out that prosecutors avoid them. Since Texas established a “life without parole” option, the number of cases in which prosecutors seek the death penalty has dropped. Many of those in the criminal justice field say it’s an option that assures the victim’s family that the convicted murderer will never go free and saves taxpayers from the burden of endless appeals. Taxpayers generally foot the bill for legal representation on both sides of the case. If the defendant is not found to be indigent at the time of the murder, he or she soon meets that criteria before the trial begins. In Texas, felony cases typically take more than a year to come to trial. Most capital murder defendants are held without bail until they face the jury. While counties don’t receive a bill from state crime labs for DNA testing, if the defense seeks additional testing from an independent lab the cost is several thousand dollars per sample. According to a report in the Dallas Morning News published in 1992, each death penalty case in Texas costs taxpayers about $2.3 million — about three times the cost of housing an inmate in a maximum security cell for 40 years. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened in Skinner’s case, stopping an execution set for March 24, 2010 just an hour before it was to be carried out, ruling that Skinner had the right to sue the district attorney for access to the physical evidence. As that lawsuit began, a new execution date was set for Nov. 9, 2011. In addition to the request for additional DNA testing, Skinner claims he was physically incapable of committing the crime because he was too intoxicated. Skinner reportedly took a near lethal mixture of Xanax, codeine and alcohol. Skinner was arrested a short time after the murders were discovered. After he was unable to stand upright so booking officers could take his photo, he was taken to the hospital were tests showed his blood alcohol level was .21 percent in additional to codeine in the amount of 0.44 gms per 100 ml. Defense attorneys produced medical records that showed Skinner was found to be allergic to codeine 13 years before the murders. A forensic toxicologist testified at the trial that the combined effect of the codeine and alcohol would have likely put him in a stuporous state, making him incapable of performing the violent attacks. Skinners case is also drawing attention from political pundits who wonder whether Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign will prompt him to change his typical stance of denying any final reprieve from execution.