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A Busy Year for the Texas Executioner, but Hank Skinner Eludes Death Again

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In the spirit of the holidays, Texas is taking a break from lethally injecting the residents of the Allan B. Polunksy Unit, better known as death row.

Executioners need time off, too, especially after a busy year that reduced the surplus population by 14 -- six executions ahead of its nearest rival, Oklahoma, and one-third of the total state-sponsored killings in 2012.

The Texas killing fields ended in controversy a week before Thanksgiving when Preston Hughes was executed despite compelling evidence of his innocence. Texas will officially welcome in the New Year when Kimberly McCarthy becomes the first woman put to death in two years, barring an unforeseen stay.

Of the 17 executions planned for 2013, eight will be in Texas. And, if Texas has its way, one of the newly departed will be Henry Watkins Skinner, a/k/a "Hank."

Executing Hank Skinner has presented a surprisingly stubborn challenge for Texas lawmen. Convicted of brutally slaying his live-in girlfriend and her two adult sons on New Year's Eve in 1993, physical evidence proved that Skinner was in the home at the time of the crime. Then he showed up, wearing bloodstained clothes, at a neighbor's residence and allegedly threatened her if she called the cops. A Panhandle jury did not take long to find him guilty and recommend the ultimate punishment.

Yet, on death row for 18 Christmases, Skinner has outlived more than 400 condemned men and women. How? Turns out the evidence was not what it seemed.

The case against Skinner began to unravel when the prosecution's star witness -- the neighbor -- recanted her testimony. Skinner was talking gibberish and seemed completely disoriented, she admitted, behavior consistent with his claim that he awoke from a near-fatal overdose of booze and prescription meds and discovered the bodies. (He said the blood on his clothes were from trying to rouse them.) An independent witness saw Skinner passed out on the couch shortly before the crime, and toxicologists said he would not have been physically able to stab three adults, two of whom were bulky young men, and bash in his girlfriend's head with an ax handle.

But the biggest problem for Texas lawmen surfaced when witnesses came forward to implicate the female victim's uncle in the crime. The uncle, now deceased, was seen harassing the young woman at a party the night of the murders. After disappearing for hours, the next morning he suspiciously scrubbed his pickup truck from top to bottom and removed the floorboards. Most telling, a previously unidentified bloodied jacket that police found next to the woman's body was in fact her uncle's, according to a sworn statement by his next-door neighbor.

In the midst of these revelations, Skinner called publicly for DNA tests that would determine whether the uncle was in the home that night, tests on physical evidence that had never been checked -- including the murder weapons. Texas fought the tests, arguing Skinner had had his day in court, but relented briefly -- until they discovered DNA at the scene that wasn't Skinner's or the victims'. That put a halt to further testing for a decade until the U.S. Supreme Court, after Skinner came within an hour of execution, took the case and decided in his favor.

More legal wrangling in the lower courts brought Skinner to within three days of death until both sides finally agreed to DNA testing last summer. The tests would be conducted on all the evidence at Texas' expense. It was a generous gesture, except for one problem: Texas had lost the bloodied jacket. The crucial piece of evidence that might have placed the uncle at the scene had inexplicably vanished. "No one's ever been able to find that thing," shrugged a spokesman for Texas lawmen.

Skinner and his lawyers were outraged, but tests on the surviving evidence continued until just before Thanksgiving, when the Texas Attorney General decided not to wait for the final results. Skinner had been proven guilty, the AG trumpeted in a court advisory. The basis for their claim: Preliminary results showed that Skinner's DNA had been found in several additional places in the home, including on the kitchen knife that was likely used in the murders.

Sounds bad for Skinner. But wait. Wouldn't Skinner's DNA be predictably found in the home where he resided, especially on a household item? And if his DNA was on the knife, why wasn't it on the ax handle? Most important, DNA that excluded Skinner and the victims was also found on the knife and in the boys' bedroom.

"We find it troubling that the Attorney General's Office has seen fit to release partial results of the DNA testing and submit its 'advisory' to the court while the DNA testing is still in progress," said Skinner lawyer Rob Owen. "The partial results... show that at least one person other than Hank Skinner and the victims may have been present in the house on the night the murders took place, and may have had contact with one of the weapons used in the killings."

So the tug of war over Skinner's life continues into 2013, with the next battle centered on further testing of the unknown person's DNA and new testing of hairs -- including one found clutched in the female victim's hand. And, there are fresh skirmishes, as there always seem to be in this case. The Texas A.G. has backed off his promise to pay for the remaining tests, according to sources familiar with the agreement. Even worse, the A.G. has still failed to produce the chain of custody documents about the missing jacket, fueling suspicions about its disappearance.

But these events have not deterred Skinner, who turned 50 this year, from continuing his fight for freedom. He will spend Dec. 25 writing about his case from a 6.5 by 10.5 cell with a narrow slot through which he will be served a holiday dinner. Then he will draft a new dispatch for "Hell Hole News," a website created by his supporters.

Christmas on death row will be just another day to Hank Skinner. But his pace will be more hurried than usual, for the executioner's holiday will be short-lived.