Monday, 15 March 2010

Latest Developments in the Hank Skinner Case

Attorneys representing Hank Skinner have formally asked Governor Rick Perry to issue a 30-day reprieve of Skinner's March 24 execution date and to order DNA testing in the case. You can view the letter and the appendices, which contain supporting documentation.

By this letter, we respectfully request that you exercise your authority to grant a 30-day
reprieve of execution to our client Henry W. Skinner, and order the DNA testing that Mr.
Skinner has unsuccessfully pursued for more than a decade, and which could resolve
longstanding and troubling questions about his possible innocence.

As set forth more fully below, since his arrest in the early morning hours of January 1,
1994, Mr. Skinner has always and consistently maintained that he did not commit the
crimes for which he was convicted. Physical evidence from the crime scene, witness
accounts, and expert testimony all demonstrate that Mr. Skinner was so severely impaired at the time of the murders as a result of his extreme intoxication from drugs and alcohol that he would have lacked the physical and mental coordination even to perform simple tasks, let alone these three murders. Forensic DNA testing has a very strong likelihood of either confirming or disproving his claim of innocence. Indeed, even the evidence presented at Mr. Skinner's trial raised disturbing doubts about whether he could have murdered the victims, and since that time substantial new evidence has been uncovered that supports Mr. Skinner's claim of innocence.


Mr. Skinner’s case has understandably attracted a great deal of public attention in recent weeks. While Texans undoubtedly support capital punishment, they insist that it be reserved for those who are clearly guilty. Their view is reflected in comments like those of former Bexar County District Attorney Sam Millsap:

Last week, Gov. Rick Perry granted the state's first posthumous pardon to a man who was innocent of a crime for which he had spent 13 years in
prison. DNA testing cleared Tim Cole of a rape he did not commit, but
unfortunately it came too late — nine years after he had died in prison.
The state must do everything it can to prevent this kind of tragedy from
happening again.

On March 24, Texas plans to execute Henry Watkins Skinner even though
untested DNA evidence could show we've got the wrong man. DNA
testing could resolve doubts about Skinner's guilt in the 1993 Pampa
slayings of his girlfriend and her two sons, but the state inexplicably has
blocked that testing for more than a decade.

I'm not an advocate for Hank Skinner. I'm an advocate for the truth. If
DNA tests could remove the uncertainty about Skinner's guilt — one way
or the other — there's not a good reason in the world not to do it.

Rob Owen, Co-Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas School of Law, is one of Skinner's lawyers and signed the letter to Governor Perry. The Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University is also active in Skinner's case. Professor David Protess, the Director of the Medill Innocence Project, and eight of his journalism students conducted an extensive investigation of Mr. Skinner’s case in 2000. Their findings and additional background on the case can be found here.

The Texas governor's clemency authority is limited to issuing a single 30-day reprieve. Additional reprieves or longer reprieves can only be granted upon a positive recommendation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. In Texas, governors do not sign a death warrant setting an execution date, and the governor has no legal authority over the execution date. The state district court in which the capital murder trial was held retains control of the case; the judge of that court orders the execution date.

More on clemency in Texas can be found in The Role of Mercy: Safegaurding Texas Justice Through Clemency Reform, which examined best practices in executive clemency. The 2005 report was issued by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Innocence Network. The Appendix contains comparative state information.

Earlier coverage of the controversial case begins with this post noting Sam Millsap's OpEd.


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