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What Texas Isn't Telling You About Hank Skinner's Case

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SKINNER
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On Wednesday, at 6 p.m. Central, Texas officials intend to strap Hank Skinner to a gurney, inject poisonous chemicals into his veins, and end his life. Only a stay by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or a reprieve by Gov. Rick Perry, stand in the way of Skinner's execution.

As I reported on Oct. 4 and Nov. 3, Texas wants to kill Skinner without first doing DNA tests that could prove his innocence, determine the guilt of an alternative suspect, or confirm Skinner's guilt.

The authorities insist the tests are not necessary. Skinner is clearly responsible, they claim, for murdering Twila Busby and her two adult sons in their Panhandle home on New Year's Eve in 1993. Skinner did not request DNA testing before his trial in 1993, they say, so now it is too late. Post-conviction tests should not be done.

What they are not telling you is stunning. What they do not want you to know contradicts their public explanation for fighting the tests.

Here is what's really behind their rhetoric.

Five years after Skinner was convicted and sentenced to death, Gray Co. D.A. John Mann, Skinner's prosecutor, sent evidence from the crime scene to a Texas lab for DNA testing. Mann personally selected the lab, GeneScreen, which regularly did business with law enforcement. Mann also carefully chose the evidence he wanted tested. This move would forever put to rest the nagging questions about Skinner's guilt, Mann believed.

It did not turn out the way the D.A. expected.

While some of the tests confirmed that Skinner was in the house that New Year's Eve (which he does not dispute, explaining he'd passed out from consuming alcohol and codeine), several results pointed strongly to his innocence.

  • Bloodied gauze found on the front sidewalk amidst a trail of blood -- not from Skinner or Twila. (One of her sons was murdered in his bed, and the other stumbled out the back door before collapsing on a neighbor's porch.)
  • Blood on a cassette recorder found near Twila's body -- not from Skinner or Twila.
  • A hair clutched in Twila's hand -- not from Skinner or Twila. From "a stranger," a scientist concluded.

The results, initially reported to D.A. Mann in a phone call from GeneScreen, sent shock waves through the prosecutor's office. And, it led Mann to abruptly halt further testing.

What didn't Mann send to GeneScreen after getting the bad news?

  • Two bloodied knives used in the murders. Mann had claimed at trial that cuts on Skinner's hand were caused by the knives. Skinner said the cuts were from broken glass. Without the DNA tests, we will not know the truth about the murder weapons.
  • Vaginal swabs of Twila. She was found with her jeans unbuttoned and partially removed. Without the DNA tests, we will not know the truth about what is on the swabs.
  • A windbreaker covered in blood and sweat, found two feet from Twila's body. It did not belong to Skinner or the victims, but strongly resembled a jacket often worn by Twila's uncle, who stalked her at the New Year's Eve party shortly before the murders. Without the DNA tests, we will not learn the truth about the windbreaker.

D.A. Mann, a Republican, lost his bid for re-election to another Republican and never publicly explained why he refused to test this crucial evidence. Mann died in 2008.

GeneScreen's typed reports landed on the desk of his successor, Richard "Rick" Roach, soon after he took office in 2001. D.A. Roach promptly told Skinner's lawyers about the new findings, calling them "exculpatory."

Then Roach did something that has haunted the Skinner case to this day. "There will be no more testing without a court order," he announced. That's right. He shut down the testing -- after the latest round did not turn out the way prosecutors wanted.

A decade later, the D.A.'s office, now headed by Roach protegé Lynn Switzer, is still stubbornly refusing to finish the testing begun by John Mann. A decade later, and still no judge has ordered Switzer to do otherwise.

Prosecutors swear up and down that they are acting on principle, that Hank Skinner had his chance for DNA testing and blew it, like a guilty man would.

But the truth is that prosecutors will do anything to stop the tests -- even if it means killing a man who may be innocent.

Tomorrow: How TV's Nancy Grace shamed D.A. John Mann into ordering the DNA tests. And, the shocking development that prevented D.A. Rick Roach from changing his mind about new tests.

Skinner's supporters have posted an on-line petition to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.