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.


Scott said...

Nice piece, prosecutors clearly have an important in society by protecting citizens from dangerous criminals. However prosecutors also need humility to admin when they are wrong. From your piece it appears their is evidence Mr Skinner has a good chance to be exonerated assuming further DNA testing is conducted and it confirms his innocence. Although it could further prove his guilt which would make his execution more acceptable.

A point learned from this case (assuming Skinner is innocent) and the Knox/Sollecito case is that just because you are innocent you and your attorneys must do everything possible to fight convection. Have attorneys present during questioning and press for testing that could exonerate yourself or client. In the Knox/Sollecito case the defense was offered to monitor DNA testing of some of the items like the bra clasp and kitchen knife. The defense chose not to monitor this testing. If these tests could have been monitored then is quite possible the case could have been wrapped up years ago.

I'm from North Carolina as well and I hoping you can post a piece or two on a local case that readers outside of the state would appreciate. Your previous pieces on the Duke Lacrosse case are a great example. Perhaps a piece or two on the North Carolina Crime Lab Scandal.

Chris Halkides said...


In my blog entry on presumptive versus confirmatory blood testing, I quoted from the series of articles that the Raleigh News and Observer did on the SBI crime lab. I wish prosecutors everywhere would seek justice, not wins. William L. Anderson had a nice piece this past July on the case of Bradley Cooper, from NC. The police managed to erase some information on his deceased wife's cell phone, and I have some reservations about the contents of his wife's stomach with respect to TOD. Both of these are points of similarity to the Knox/Sollecito case.

The defense might have learned how the knife DNA was quantitated by being present, but the bra clasp revolved around issues of interpretation. Moreover, as Dan Krane pointed out one time, if you are observing for the defense and the prosecution's forensic team made a mistake, should you correct them, or wait until the trial to reveal this. It might be a conflict of interest.

Kaosium said...

Ironically enough, I came across this when searching for links about the 'mixed blood' evidence for the Amanda Knox case. I also ran across what I thought was another reference to this case recently as well, I was thinking it was here but I don't see what I remembered, that the DA who was persecuting him ended up getting busted for methamphetamine. Perhaps that was a different case with similar elements?

December 31st, 1993, I remember exactly what I was doing that night, and it was kinda naughty too, the Badgers were going to their first Rose Bowl since Vander Kelen to Richter in 1963, having been the doormats of the Big Ten my entire lifetime outside a few decent years in the early Eighties under Dave McClain. Growing up I thought the Badgers going to a Rose Bowl was an impossible dream, thus when it did happen I spared no effort in enjoying myself. :p

It looks like I was in better shape than poor Hank Skinner though. :(

I think here is where is problem really lies, I wonder just how much of this is verifiable? It sure makes him sound far more suspicious than Hank Skinner, and with his death might have cheated justice and Hank Skinner too.

"Robert Donnell, Twila's maternal uncle, had a history of violence and was seen stalking Twila at a neighbor's New Year's Eve party on the night of the crime. Donnell had twice raped Twila in recent past and was known to have a propensity for knives. Twila was found dead with her pants unzipped and her blouse was pulled up high on her chest. The medical examiner testified her private parts were reddened and chafed. When Twila left the party, Donnell followed five minutes later and was never called to account for his whereabouts at the time of the crime.

After Donnell finally got home and when told of the deaths of his niece and great nephews the next day at 5:00am, he showed no reaction but took his truck into the front yard, pulled out the seats and interior, scrubbed it all out with a brush and hose, replaced the carpets, then repainted the exterior. Later a neighborhood child identified Donnell's truck as having been at the crime scene at the time of the crime but police never questioned Donnell. He was later killed in a drunken auto accident."

Chris Halkides said...


Someone tried to rouse Skinner to go to a New Year’s Eve party and could not, due to the combination of alcohol and codeine to which Skinner was allergic. His girlfriend went but did not stay long. Then she returned and was murdered. According to the prosecution, Skinner saw someone kissing his girlfriend when he dropped her back home. I find this an implausible story on three grounds: the motive is thin, Skinner might not even have been conscious at the time his girlfriend returned, and he had an injury to his right hand that might have made it difficult to choke Twila Busby, the victim.

The presence of the windbreaker at the crime scene is very important. A witness identified the windbreaker as belonging to the uncle, Robert Donnell. There was a handprint on the plastic bag holding a knife, but it was not Skinner’s print. Nor were some of the items such as a towel tested for blood. From your citation, Dr. Glenn Larkin wrote, “The only reason for not testing the blood and comparing the samples with the known is the fear that it would indicate a person other than Skinner was the perpetrator."

I have had the same problem as you seem to have in finding a set of facts to which everyone agrees. The Wikipedia article seems to be slanted slightly against Mr. Skinner. The series of entries at the Skeptical Juror is a pro-Skinner alternative. My overall impression at this point is that it is more probable than not that Skinner is innocent and that Donnell was the true culprit.

Kaosium said...

What I find amazing is that it has been some eighteen years since the incident, he was condemned to death, but they still haven't done those tests, with the extraordinary excuse that it wouldn't exclude Skinner, but would just include someone else. If that material matches someone else than Hank Skinner, how could that not lead to reasonable doubt? How could they go ahead with an execution on those terms, knowing the primary evidence from the crime scene (as I understand it so far in a brief exposure to the facts) was untested?

Chris Halkides said...


If the uncle's DNA were found on the items, the prosecution would probably claim a conspiracy between the two men. It is no more ridiculous than the conspiracies alleged in the Knox/Sollecito case or the Billy Wayne Cope case.

Chris Halkides said...
This comment has been removed by the author.