Friday, November 4, 2011

Hank Skinner, the death penalty, and investigative tunnel vision

Update I, 5 November 2011

The Skeptical Juror wrote, "The hairs found clasped in Twila’s hand, the hairs pronounced by the DA to belong to the killer, turned out to come from a male, maternal relative of Twila. They did not come from Hank Skinner. According to the standard set by the DA before the testing, those hairs exonerated Hank Skinner." Twila's uncle had stalked her the night of her murder. The DNA testing described appears to be mitochondrial DNA forensics (one inherits mitochondrial DNA from one's mother). My tentative interpretation of the mitochondrial DNA is that the data tend toward innocence but are not yet conclusive. As others have said, I am not certain Mr. Skinner is innocent, but I cannot see a persuasive reason not to test the items in question.


The state of Texas is trying to put Hank Skinner to death for the murder of a family of three people. DNA testing showed that blood smears on his shirt matched two of the victims. Mr. Skinner was undoubtedly at the scene of the crime, but his mental and physical state at the time open the question of whether or not he would have been capable of committing murder. A recent Texas law was designed to apply to this case, to allow further DNA testing.

Radley Balko has been following the case of Hank Skinner for some time. Writing for Reason Balko noted, “In 2000 DNA tests were conducted on blood taken from a roll of gauze and a cassette tape found in the house; that blood didn't match Skinner, his girlfriend, or her sons.” At Huffington Post he wrote, “There is DNA from the crime scene that could exonerate Skinner -- or could affirm his guilt -- that has never been tested. That includes blood from the murder weapon, blood from a jacket left in Busby's home, a rape kit taken from Busby, scrapings from under Busby's fingernails and hairs she was clutching at the time of her death -- hairs that likely came from her killer.”

The State of Texas has argued that since Skinner’s attorney at the time did not press for testing these items. Radley Balko continued, "’They only tested the material they thought would implicate Skinner,’ [Professor David] Protess told me in an interview last year. ‘They fixated on their suspect, and once they thought they had enough for a conviction, they stopped.’” Private investigation several years after the crime turned up a second plausible suspect.

Students of the Knox/Sollecito case should be especially troubled by investigatorial tunnel vision. In the first place, there are good reasons to question the competency of Skinner’s first attorney, apart from his decision not to seek testing. Second, his attorney’s decision was contrary to the wishes of Mr. Skinner, as he expressed in a letter in 1994. Third, the whole issue of whether or not the attorney should have sought testing is misdirection: the investigators should have tested these items as a matter of good forensic science. Here is a link to a petition for full DNA testing.