Sunday, 14 March 2010

Column - Matthew Wright: DNA testing would resolve doubt in convicted killer's guilt

Henry "Hank" Skinner is scheduled to be executed on March 24 for the murder of his girlfriend Twila Busby and her two teenage sons. The crime itself was horrible, so horrible that it is easy to see why most Texans continue to support the death penalty in appropriate cases.

The facts are so horrible that decent people cringe whenever they are discussed.

Hank Skinner and his supporters argue that he is innocent of the murders. They admit that he was present at the house that horrible night, but they claim that he was too intoxicated - on vodka and codeine - to have the strength or presence of mind necessary to commit the heinous acts. They say someone else - possibly, Twila's uncle, who has since died - actually committed the horrible acts.

More to the point, Hank Skinner and his supporters claim that the Gray County District Attorney's Office has possession of a rape kit, skin from the victim's fingernails, a windbreaker, and two weapons from the crime scene that were never tested for DNA. They claim that testing on those items would prove, once and for all, who committed the murders.

At the time of his original trial, Hank Skinner's controversial attorney decided not to test those items. (Skinner's trial attorney had previously prosecuted his client twice. Then he was removed from his office because of a scandal).

In 2000, the state agreed to test some of the evidence, expecting it to disprove Skinner's claims. But that didn't happen; a hair found clutched in the victim's hand came, not from Skinner, but from one of the victim's relatives. So far, the courts have ruled against Skinner's request to have the rest of the evidence tested. At the risk of oversimplification, the courts say they won't second-guess the questionable attorney's decision. The case has garnered a lot of attention recently because of the impending execution date, but Skinner and his supporters have been fighting to have those tests for more than a decade.

I have to assume that the district attorney, like everyone who wants the execution to happen, believes without any doubt that Hank Skinner committed these murders. So why should she order this evidence to be tested, especially since that might result in a slight delay in the execution date? I can think of three reasons:

First, the attention directed at Skinner's case, and at Gray County, will not go away if the state carries out the execution on March 24.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed more than six years ago, and the controversy over that decision in the legislature and the media continues to this day. All that negative attention, litigation, and political maneuvering could be avoided in this case if the state agrees to release the DNA results before the execution. If Skinner committed the murders, then the evidence will confirm that fact. All those who have opposed this execution will be silenced.

Second, if the testing is never conducted, then the horrible accusations directed against the Twila's uncle will continue to attract the attention of the press and the public, and the shadow cast over his memory will persist. If Skinner committed the murders, then this vicious criticism is completely undeserved. If Skinner committed the murders, then DNA tests will eliminate the uncle as a suspect and he will be the one exonerated.

Third, ordering the tests even without a court order shows the kind of courage and confidence Texans expect from our elected officials. One negative aspect of the coverage of this case is its focus on people's doubts about Skinner's guilt, which suggests that ordering the tests would be a tacit admission of weaknesses in the State's case. On the contrary, only the guilty and the mistaken have reason to fear the results.

That's why I encourage all responsible state officials to "take the high road" and order the DNA tests, then publish the results. That would show confidence in the outcome of the original trial. Those who believe Skinner is guilty don't believe they have anything to lose from the results, but they have much to gain.

I am troubled by the recurring suggestion that Texans are bloodthirsty and care nothing about innocence. Most people who support the death penalty believe it is the appropriate and moral punishment for someone who commits a heinous murder. No one believes that efficiency, finality, deterrence, or closure is so important that we should risk executing an innocent person.

If Skinner is executed before the evidence is tested, then generations of people will argue that Texas executed an innocent man. If Skinner is executed after the state publishes DNA results that stomp out those lingering doubts, then none of us will ever hear that accusation again.


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