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Witness Implicates Alternative Suspect in Texas Death Penalty Case

07/09/2012 10:13 am ET | Updated Sep 08, 2012

Camera rolling, a student-journalist hands the witness a photo taken by police at a gruesome crime scene. The witness studies the photo and turns away, seemingly repulsed. Then she tears up.

It isn't a photo of the female murder victim, Twila Busby, or her two adult sons, butchered in their Pampa, Texas home on New Year's Eve in 1993. Rather, it's a color photo of a tan jacket, stained with blood and sweat -- and found next to Twila's lifeless body. Based on the stain patterns, the jacket was likely worn by the killer, an expert concluded.

But the jacket didn't belong to Hank Skinner, who was convicted of the slayings and sentenced to death in 1995. So whose was it, the young reporter wanted to know?

"I am 100 percent sure this was Robert Donnell's jacket," the witness declares. "He wore it all the time."

The witness, Deborah Ellis, knew Donnell well. Her parents lived next door to him in Pampa at the time of the murders and Donnell's wife, Willie Mae, was "like a grandmother to me," Ellis says.

Ellis also knew that Donnell was Twila's alcoholic uncle who'd harassed her at a New Year's Eve party the night of the murders, and that he'd left the party after Twila and hadn't returned home for hours. Soon afterward, Ellis saw him suspiciously scrubbing the interior of his pick-up truck and replacing its rubber floorboards.

But police arrested Hank Skinner instead because he was in the home at the time of the crime, disbelieving his claim that he'd passed out on the couch from drinking vodka laced with prescription meds. And, despite a witness and two toxicologists who corroborated Skinner's story, he was convicted and dispatched to Texas' death row -- coming within 47 minutes of execution before the Supreme Court issued a stay.

Following the stay, on a warm April afternoon in 2010, Deborah Ellis told my journalism students what she distinctly recalled from the time of the murders. It's a story she's told for years, in bits and pieces, to police officers and defense lawyers. But never before had Ellis been shown a photo of the actual jacket and asked if she could identify it.

The students, who'd come to Pampa to interview residents about the case, peppered Ellis with questions. After telling her chilling story, she agreed to repeat it on camera. You can watch the interview by clicking here.

What made Ellis notice that Donnell wore that particular jacket?

"He just wore it all the time. He wore it to go to the store. He wore it to take the trash out. He wore it outside, doin' whatever he was doin' outside."

Had she seen Donnell wearing the jacket after the murders?

"I never saw Robert wearing the jacket after the murders. Ever. And we didn't think about it first, but after the fact, we never saw the jacket again."

Had she looked for it?

She and Willie Mae Donnell "started looking for the jacket, [but we] never found it. Anywhere. In any of Robert's belongings or anything."

And the kicker: Had Robert threatened Willie Mae after she began asking about the murders?

"[Willie Mae] was questioning him about what happened to Twila and her boys. He told her that if she didn't shut up and quit talking to him about it... that she would end up the same way that they did... He would kill her like he killed them."

The students, exhilarated by the breakthrough in the case, called me with the news. The next day, Ellis signed a sworn statement based on her interview.

Although the Donnells had died years earlier, we knew that Robert's genetic profile would not be difficult to obtain. We thought that forensic testing of the DNA-rich jacket might corroborate Ellis' statement and finally bring the truth to light.

As it turned out, we were wrong.

***

The tortured history of DNA testing in Hank Skinner's case began a year before his trial, when D.A. John Mann ordered forensics on only those items that placed Skinner at the crime scene, a fact he never disputed. Mann didn't have the jacket tested. Nor did he test the bloodied murder weapons or the rape kit.

When I chided Mann about this on Court TV in 2000, he promised to test all the remaining evidence. That never happened. Instead, he chose 14 additional items that he believed would resolve lingering questions about Skinner's guilt. Much to Mann's dismay, however, three of the DNA results excluded Skinner -- blood from gauze found on the sidewalk in front of the victims' home, blood on a tape cassette and a hair clutched in Twila's hand.

Mann promptly halted further testing, and his no-DNA policy was followed by his successors, D.A.'s Rick Roach and Lynn Switzer. Meanwhile, Skinner's lawyers launched a counter-offensive in 2001, seeking court-ordered forensics on the more than 40 items of evidence that had never been tested -- including the tan jacket.

For more than a decade, Texas lawmen fought the testing. They lost before the U.S. Supreme Court, they lost before the Texas legislature and they were about to lose earlier this year before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals when they finally relented. On June 1, they agreed to test the unexamined evidence.

Two weeks later, they made a stunning admission: The jacket had vanished. "No one's ever been able to find that thing," shrugged Gary Noblett, who manages the Pampa police department's evidence room.

Skinner's lawyers were outraged. "Mr. Skinner has insisted that this jacket should be tested because it may have been worn by the assailant," said attorney Rob Owen. "It is difficult to understand how the State has managed to maintain custody of items as small as fingernail clippings, while apparently losing something as large as a man's windbreaker jacket."

On July 5, the 40 surviving items were sent to a state-run lab for DNA analysis. Perhaps the results will show, once again, that Skinner was in the home that terrible night. Perhaps they will show that someone besides Skinner and the victims was also present.

Either way, the 18-year debate over Skinner's guilt or innocence will likely continue to rage, with both sides questioning results that challenge their point of view about the case.

Deborah Ellis thinks she knows what happened, but wishes DNA tests could prove it. Tragically, the hope for scientific certainty may have been dashed the day Texas lawmen lost a bloodied jacket found at the scene of a triple homicide.