For more than 11 years -- 3,888 days, to be exact -- Texas death row prisoner Henry "Hank" Skinner has been asking the courts for DNA tests that he believes can prove his innocence.
Since Oct. 9, 2001, when Skinner's lawyers filed their first motion for DNA testing, Texas lawmen have stood in the way, saying Skinner is guilty and his request is simply a stalling tactic.
Turns out the lawmen were stalling.
On Friday, they finally caved after spending this century fighting the tests in the Texas courts, the federal district and appellate courts, the U.S. Supreme Court and back again in both federal and state courts -- wasting taxpayers' dollars when Skinner's legal team had long ago promised to pay for the tests.
Now the attorney general of Texas has agreed to DNA analysis of evidence from a triple homicide in a Panhandle home on New Year's Eve in 1993. Based on circumstantial evidence, Skinner was convicted of the crime in 1995 and condemned to die. The never-tested items include two murder weapons, hairs clutched in the female victim's hand, the rape kit, and blood, sweat and hair found on a jacket next to her body.
As reported previously, DNA results before Skinner's trial showed he was in the home at the time of the crime, a fact he doesn't dispute, claiming he had passed out from a mixture of alcohol and prescription meds. Toxicology reports and a witness support his version. And, DNA results after his conviction pointed to someone else, perhaps a relative who was seen stalking the female victim the night of the crime and cleansing his pick-up truck the morning after.
At long last, we may have scientific answers to this unsolved mystery. Defense lawyers and prosecutors will meet soon to discuss a protocol for conducting the tests, which should take a matter of weeks if an agreement can be reached. "We are pleased that the state finally appears willing to work with us to make [DNA] testing a reality," said Skinner lawyer Rob Owen in a statement.
How did we get to this point? What took so long? Why did Texas finally agree to the testing?
The battle over DNA began, innocently enough, as a class project for my investigative reporting students at Northwestern University in 2000. The assignment: Review all the documents in the case, interview Skinner on death row and head to the Panhandle to interview key witnesses. It quickly became complicated for the student-sleuths when they discovered reports on the untested evidence that -- if properly preserved -- should be rich with DNA. Next, they wanted to know whether Skinner would agree to the tests.
Skinner didn't hesitate: He told the students that he always wanted the tests, but unwisely heeded the advice of his trial lawyer -- the former D.A. of that county. He would gladly supply whatever samples were needed to finally do the tests.
A few days later, in the Panhandle, the State's star witness recanted her trial testimony in an audio-taped interview with the students, saying the D.A. who prosecuted Skinner had pressured her to lie. They also interviewed witnesses who were sure the female victim's uncle had committed the crime. Most damning: A witness swore that the jacket found next to the woman's body belonged to her uncle.
Back on campus, we planned the release of the students' findings, which eventually were reported in the spring of 2000 on the AP wires and NBC News. That led to a memorable confrontation on Court TV between the D.A. and me in which host Nancy Grace shamed him into promising tests on the remaining evidence.
But when several of results excluded Skinner, the D.A. backed off. Fearful of what the forensics would turn up on the murder weapons, the hairs and the jacket, he unilaterally halted the testing. That's when Skinner's lawyers filed suit in 2001 to complete what the D.A. had started. The two D.A.s who succeeded him have maintained the same no-test policy, as did the Texas attorney general -- until three days ago.
Meanwhile, Hank Skinner came within 47 minutes of lethal injection in 2010 before the Supreme Court intervened, and two days of execution in 2011 before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to hear the case.
It was at the oral arguments before the Texas high court last month that lawmen finally got the message: They'd better voluntarily agree to the tests or the judges were going to order them to do it. "If you had tested this 10 years ago, you would have had results 10 years ago," scolded Judge Elsa Alcala. "Prosecutors should be testing everything... You ought to be absolutely sure before you strap a person down and kill 'em," Judge Michael Keasler chimed in.
So, it would only be natural to conclude that Texas lawmen made the right decision on Friday, but for the wrong reason -- to avoid a judicial ass whuppin'. While such cynicism is justified, I say give credit to the boys in Austin. They could have waited months for the court's decision, then stalled some more. But they relented. Good for them. (A caveat: Suddenly telling the court that "the State believes the interest of justice would best be served by DNA testing..." should be grounds for perjury -- or a job as Gov. Rick Perry's speechwriter in his next presidential campaign.)
That said, let's hope the upcoming process will reveal what actually happened that horrible night when three innocents lost their lives. I don't pretend to know the answer, as I've written repeatedly, but our 12-year involvement has been to find out. DNA tests are clearly the best means to that end. It is outrageous that it has taken this long, but better late than never. Texas' past preference -- executing Skinner without DNA testing -- was unconscionable.
The students have long since graduated, as has another young reporting team that interviewed the jurors who convicted Skinner and learned they opposed the execution unless the tests were done. Many of the students became reporters, editors and producers. Some became lawyers. Several are married and at least two have children of their own. One alum, a CNN producer who a decade earlier first interviewed Skinner about DNA testing, was close to delivering her baby on the night of Skinner's scheduled execution.
While Skinner lived to celebrate his 50th birthday on April 4, it was in a 6.5 by 10.5 cell, alone except for the raucous noise that pervades life on death row. And the family members of the murder victims have spent 18 New Year's without their beloved.
Both sides have been calling for DNA testing for years. May the results finally bring them justice.
For more information on Henry "Hank" Skinner's case and others see David Protess' author archive.
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