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David Protess

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Time Is Not on Texas Condemned Man's Side

Posted: 11/03/11 05:54 PM ET

Time is so elusive. It's hard to remember when my journalism students and I weren't reporting about Hank Skinner's case. That's partly because it's been more than a decade, our oldest active case. When we first heard about Skinner's plight, George W. Bush was still governor of Texas.

We got involved sometime in 2000, when I got a call from Bryson Hull, an AP reporter in Houston. (I'm fairly certain it was early spring because the Chicago Cubs were beginning what would prove to be their 92nd season of futility. That's another way to mark time.) Hull told me about a Texas condemned man who steadfastly professed his innocence. His name was Henry Watkins Skinner, but he insisted on being called "Hank."

I distinctly recall reading the official record in Hank Skinner's case and wondering why significant crime scene evidence -- the murder weapons, the rape kit, a blood-stained windbreaker -- had not been scientifically tested. I also recall asking my journalism students, who were preoccupied with other reporting projects, if they wanted to interview Skinner on Texas' death row to see if he'd agree to DNA testing. Their reply: Road trip!

At some point, the students reported that Skinner was eager to have the tests performed. Later, the State's star witness told the students she had lied at Skinner's trial and other witnesses had good reason to believe the female victim's late uncle had committed the crime. The bloodied windbreaker looked like the uncle's, a witness said. DNA testing might determine whether it was his.

In 2010, six of the Skinner jurors told a new group of students that his life should be spared unless tests on the remaining evidence prove his guilt.

Another year passed. Still no tests.

Now the clock is ticking on Hank Skinner's life. A Texas judge has ordered him executed on Nov. 9, less than a week from today. He would be executed even though the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year gave him the right to sue for access to the crime scene evidence. Executed even though that lawsuit is presently before a federal magistrate. Executed despite a new Texas statute that guarantees post-conviction DNA testing.

Texas officials argue that Skinner had plenty of time to ask for the tests -- before his trial in 1995. Now it's too late, they say.

Seriously? When is it ever too late to learn the truth? If Skinner is guilty, the tests should prove it. If he's innocent, the tests should prevent Texas from making a fatal mistake.

Skinner, 49, has been on death row for sixteen years, six years longer than the life expectancy of the men who reside in the Allan B. Polunsky Condemned Unit. For most of that time, Texas law enforcement has endlessly fought DNA testing, litigating the case at taxpayer's expense.

Now they're counting on a Texas judge to reject a stay and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to side with the judge. That would leave the case in the hands of Gov. Rick Perry, who has the power to order a 30-day reprieve while the tests are done -- paid for by the defense.

Gov. Perry seems to have his own problems lately. Why add the execution of a possibly innocent man to the list?

Show the world, Governor, that the perception of you is wrong -- that you aren't a cowboy who endorses executions at any cost. Make the Skinner case a turning point in your career. Do what your predecessor, George W. Bush, did in a death row case with untested evidence. "Any time DNA evidence can be relevant as to the guilt or innocence of a person on death row, we need to use it," Bush declared in ordering a reprieve.

Stop the execution, Governor, and support DNA testing for Hank Skinner.

It's about time.

Keeping You Posted:

As expected, Texas Judge Steven R. Emmert has denied Hank Skinner's request for DNA testing under the new state law that provides for such tests in exactly these circumstances. The judge's opinion was one sentence long. It contained no reason for the denial and cited no cases -- not even the relevant state law. Skinner's lawyers will appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Meanwhile, his supporters have begun their own appeal -- to Gov. Rick Perry. The on-line petition to the governor may be found at http://www.change.org/petitions/withdraw-execution-warrant-and-grant-dna-testing-to-hank-skinner-2