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Death Row DNA Squad Zeroes In

Henry Skinner
CBS
A Northwestern University journalism professor whose students have helped exonerate death row inmates in Illinois is now hoping to do the same for a Texas inmate.

38-year-old Henry Watkins Skinner was convicted in 1995 of bludgeoning his girlfriend, 40-year-old Twila Jean Busby, with an ax handle and then fatally stabbing her two mentally impaired sons at their Texas Panhandle home in 1993.

Mark Protess, the professor investigating the case, tells CBS News that Skinner's trial defense was inadequate and forensic testing was incomplete.

"It's a textbook case of a miscarriage of justice where you have the lethal recipe of police and prosecutorial misconduct, defense ineptitude and judicial indifference," he said.

Texas, which leads all other states in executions, has become the national focus of the death penalty debate, in part because of Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign. About a dozen executions are scheduled between now and the Nov. 7 election.

CBS News Correspondent Maureen Maher reports that Skinner insists that he is innocent. Skinner's case is under federal appeal and an execution date has not been scheduled.

Skinner doesn't deny being present in the house at the time of the killings but says that he was unconscious, having passed out from a combination of alcohol and codeine.

"I should have been sober and I should have been in a condition to protect them," said Skinner, in an interview. "I could have done something to stop this, but I was laying on the couch, passed out."

Protess and his students have uncovered evidence leading to the exoneration of seven men convicted of murder in Illinois, including three on death row. Gov. George Ryan suspended all Illinois executions in January pending a task force study.

"Here is a case where the physical evidence begs to be tested, to find out whether Hank Skinner deserves to be on death row or a free man," Protess said.

Police found Skinner three hours after the killings in Pampa at a nearby home, his right hand cut and his clothes dotted with the blood of Busby and one of her sons, 22-year-old Elwin Caler.

That evidence, and three bloody palm prints found at the scene, was enough to tie Skinner to the crime, Gray County District Attorney John Mann said.

"Once we had enough to convince a grand jury and a trial jury of his guilt, that was enough to go with and I went with it," Mann said.

Skinner disputed that theory in a recent interview.

"If I had hit her in the head 14 times with an ax handle, wouldn't you think I would have been covered in blood instead of just a few spots?" he said.

He said Caler's blood got on his clothes when the mortally wounded man tried to roust him from the living room couch.

A review of court documents and trial testimony shows:

  • The prosecution's star witness, Andrea Reed, recanted her testimony that Skinner threatened to kill her at her home after th killings. In an affidavit, Reed said police pressured her and prosecutors gave her prepared testimony. No court has yet considered the recantation.
  • Skinner's court-appointed defense attorney, Harold Comer, had successfully prosecuted him for assault and car theft as a district attorney. That prevented Comer from objecting during the punishment phase when those convictions were presented as proof Skinner would pose a danger to society.
  • The prosecution failed to test three possible murder weapons - two knives and an ax handle covered in blood. It did not order DNA tests for flesh found under Busby's fingernails, several hairs found on her body, and a rape kit containing sperm. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Skinner's 1997 motion requesting more testing.
  • Police never investigated Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell, despite being told by at least two witnesses that he had stalked Busby an hour before her death. The Northwestern University investigation uncovered a new witness who saw Donnell, who died in 1997, tear the flooring out of his car and paint over the interior shortly after the killings.
Texas Department of Public Safety criminalist Gary Stallings has acknowledged much of the physical evidence wasn't tested.

"Everything that would point in Skinner's direction was examined and things that pointed away from him were ignored," said Skinner's attorney, Douglas Robinson.

Although Comer pointed out the lack of testing, the defense attorney never requested the tests even though Skinner himself asked Comer do so in a letter dated June 25, 1994.

"Our theory was that it wasn't our obligation. It should have been tested by the state, because they have an obligation to exclude as well as convict," Comer said.

"The state of Texas has denied Hank Skinner's request for DNA testing," says Protess, who says the testing costs as much as $10,000. "Skinner is indigent – this is a case of poor man's justice. If the state of Texas is too cheap to determine whether an innocent man is on their death row, then Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism will pay for those tests."

So far, the state hasn't responded to that offer.

Skinner says he wouldn't accept a reduced sentence as a compromise. "I do not deserve to be here. I'm not guilty of this crime, I didn't kill anyone...There is no compromise – give me liberty, give me death, but give me only one or the other and do it quickly, please."

Skinner is now on his last appeal.

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