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Ruling Goes Against Death Row Inmate Skinner

A district court judge ruled against death row inmate Hank Skinner on Tuesday in the wake of new DNA testing, saying it was “reasonably probable” he would still have been convicted had the evidence been available at trial.

UPDATE 5:25 p.m.

PAMPA -- A judge says if DNA testing had been done 20 years ago it would've led to the same verdict for convicted killer Hank Skinner.

    31st district judge Steven Emmert Tuesday ruled three different rounds of post-conviction DNA testing would not have helped Skinner in his original trial.

    Now, a new round of appeals is expected.

    Skinner's lawyers dispute the judge's ruling.  They continue pointing the finger at a family member of the victims.

    Skinner was convicted of the 1993 new year's eve murders of his live-in girlfriend and her two adult sons.

    He was sentenced to death two years later and has been on death row ever since.

    Skinner was minutes away from execution in 2010 before the U.S. Supreme Court stopped it.  Justices ruled the convicted killer had the right to sue for post-conviction DNA testing.

    An evidentiary hearing was held in February of this year to examine the results of the testing.

    After two days of testimony and written arguments from attorneys on both sides, judge Emmert ruled that had DNA testing been done on the evidence at the time, it would not have been favorable to Skinner's case.

    Attorneys for the death row inmate released this statement on the judge's ruling:

                “We are deeply disappointed by the district courts ruling and will appeal, urging the courts to carefully consider all the evidence of Mr. Skinners innocence.

                ‘At the DNA hearing in February, the State failed to present any dramatic new evidence confirming Mr. Skinners guilt. The opposite is true: the testimony confirmed                 DNA from an unknown person, along with Twila Busbys blood, on a dishtowel that had been secreted in a plastic garbage bag at the crime scene. In addition, the DNA test                 results were at odds with the States theory of the crime. If Mr. Skinner stabbed Randy Busby in the manner claimed by the State, Mr. Skinners blood should have been on                 the blanket of Randys bed. It wasnt. If Mr. Skinners hands were covered with the victims blood when he staggered out of the house, their blood should have been mixed                 with his on the doorknobs he touched. It wasnt. Finally, Mr. Skinners DNA on the common kitchen knife used in the crimes could have come from his having innocently                 used it as a resident of the house and being cut with it by the assailant.

                Moreover, the DNA testing produced significant and exculpatory results that raise grave doubts about Mr. Skinners guilt and point to a credible alternate suspect. The                 States expert analyst did not retreat from his conclusion that three of the four hairs found in Twila Busbys hand hairs with DNA consistent with a maternal relative of                 the victims were visually dissimilar to the victims own hair. Indeed, he confirmed that the differences were so obvious that he could see them without using a                 microscope.   This result supports the conclusion that a maternal relative of the victims committed the crimes, not Mr. Skinner. Robert Donnell, who is Ms. Busbys                 maternal uncle, stalked Ms. Busby at a party shortly before her death, and the State presented no compelling evidence linking these hairs to any other maternal relative.                 In fact, Ms. Busbys mother stated under oath before Mr. Skinners trial that she had not been inside the house in the preceding four months.

                ‘Where is the sweat-stained, blood-spattered men's windbreaker jacket found next to Ms. Busbys body and collected as evidence by the police? The State claims to have                 lost this  major piece of evidence, which  could corroborate the hair evidence pointing to Donnell.  From the earliest days of his fight for DNA testing, Mr. Skinner insisted                 that the jacket should be tested because it may have been worn by the assailant.  But the States failure to safeguard this evidence has made that impossible. 

                ‘At the DNA hearing, Mr. Skinner sought to present testimony from a witness who can positively identify the jacket as Mr. Donnells, and to have his DNA expert explain                 how testing could have confirmed Mr. Donnells DNA on the jacket. The State fought to keep this evidence out of the record, and the court agreed with the State and                 excluded it. We respectfully disagreed with this decision. In our view, this evidence is at the center of the case. It shows why a jury that heard all the evidence, including                 DNA results, would have harbored a reasonable doubt about Mr. Skinners guilt.

                ‘Excluding evidence about the jacket added to the overall unfairness of this process, in which Mr. Skinner was wrongfully forced to wait 13 years before obtaining DNA                 testing. In the meantime, through bungling by the State, potentially exculpatory evidence was being mishandled, damaged, contaminated, degraded, and lost.

                ‘The doubts about Hank Skinners guilt are far too great to allow his execution to proceed, particularly where the States utter failure to preserve key pieces of evidence                 may make it impossible to resolve those questions conclusively.”

    Skinner's attorneys also blasted the state for a missing piece of evidence that is critical to his defense.

    They say a jacket belonging to a relative of the all three victims went missing and could not be tested.
   
    Defense attorneys say the jacket belonged to Robert Donnell, an uncle of the victims.  They clain Donnell may be the killer because he stalked Twila Busby at a New Year's eve party the night of the murders.

    Prosecutors claim the jacket belonged to one of the victims and was worn by Skinner.

    Judge Emmert did not set a new execution date.  Skinner's attorney believes he may let the case go through the appeals process before setting a new date.

    The case will go next to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
 

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A district court judge ruled against death row inmate Hank Skinner this week, saying it was “reasonably probable” Skinner would have still been convicted of a triple murder even if recently conducted DNA evidence had been available at his 1995 trial.

Skinner was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons, Randy Busby and Elwin Caler, in 1993 at their Pampa home. Attorneys for Skinner had argued for DNA testing in his case for years, and state prosecutors agreed to testing in 2012. Prosecutors argued this year that the new DNA evidence would not have changed the jury’s decision, and the judge agreed Tuesday, keeping Skinner on death row.

Attorneys for Skinner said they would appeal the decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Skinner, now 52, has asked since 2001 for new DNA testing in the case to support his claims of innocence. After prosecutors agreed to those requests two years ago, state District Judge Steven Emmert held a two-day hearing in February in Gray County on the DNA evidence.

Defense attorneys Douglas Robinson and Robert Owen have long maintained that the actual killer was Twila Busby’s maternal uncle, who is now dead but displayed a history of violent behavior. Skinner has said he was far too intoxicated from vodka and codeine on the night of killings — New Year’s Eve, 1993 — to commit the crimes.

Tuesday’s brief ruling did not provide details of the judge’s rationale. But it validated state attorneys, who had emphasized that the testing identified Skinner’s DNA at 19 additional spots in the crime scene — among them a knife used in the murders — while failing to provide new confirmation that Busby’s uncle had been there.

Skinner’s attorneys countered that the more than 180 new tests, which examined roughly 40 pieces of evidence, raised a variety of doubts about Skinner’s guilt and the state’s theory of the crimes. Three hairs found in Busby’s hand were identified as dissimilar to those of people living in the house and matched the DNA of a maternal relative. Such evidence, they argued, would have convinced a jury that at least a reasonable doubt existed in the case.

State prosecutors said the matches to someone on Busby’s maternal side of the family came from degraded DNA and could have a number of explanations. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, argued that Skinner’s DNA would already have been on many household items, including the knife, because he lived in the house.

The defense also said the court should have taken a look at a bloody windbreaker found at the scene, which police collected as evidence but the state then lost. The testimony of a witness who could identify the jacket as belonging to the uncle was not admitted as evidence, the lawyers said in a statement, criticizing “the overall unfairness of this process” and “bungling by the State.”

“The judge confirmed once again what the State has said all along: it is clear from all the evidence that Hank Skinner is guilty of the murder of Twila Busby and her two sons,” said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott’s office, by email. “Skinner got the additional DNA testing he asked for and it further confirmed his guilt. It is time for Skinner to face his court-ordered punishment and quit delaying justice for his victims’ families.”

At the February hearing, much of the testimony centered on the difficulty of extracting results from the DNA testing given the aging and degradation of the evidence, more than half of which produced no results or results that couldn’t be interpreted, the state’s expert said at the time.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted Skinner a stay of execution in 2010 just 20 minutes before he was scheduled to die by legal injection.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/07/16/judge-rules-dna-evidence-doesnt-exonerate-skinner/.

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