Texas state lawmakers are among those calling for a last-minute reprieve for a condemned inmate who is requesting DNA testing of evidence, even as he is set to die Wednesday night.
Henry "Hank" Skinner, 47, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) for the New Year's Eve 1993 murder of his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons, Elwin Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20, in Pampa, Texas.
"Since his arrest in the early morning hours of January 1, 1994, Mr. Skinner has always and consistently maintained that he did not commit the crimes for which he was convicted," defense attorney Robert Owen wrote this month in a 30-page letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seeking a 30-day reprieve of Skinner's execution.
Skinner's attorneys maintain that DNA testing of the evidence could establish his innocence and determine the real killer.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on a stay of execution in the case Wednesday. If the high court denies Skinner's request to review the case, the decision falls to Perry, according to David Protess, a Northwestern University professor and director of the university's Medill Innocence Project, which has investigated Skinner's case.
On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended Perry reject a reprieve for Skinner on a unanimous vote and also voted against granting Skinner's request for a commutation of his death sentence.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis and state Rep. Elliott Naishtat both sent letters to Perry on Tuesday urging him to issue the reprieve.
"It has come to my attention that there are numerous problems with Mr. Skinner's case that raise serious questions regarding the fairness of his trial and whether or not he is guilty," Ellis wrote.
Perry has received more than 8,000 letters from Skinner's advocates urging a stay, according to the Innocence Project and Change.org, whose members and supporters have sent the letters through their Web sites.
Word about the case has spread as far as France, where demonstrations are planned Wednesday at the U.S. Embassy in Paris by supporters of Skinner's French wife, Sandrine Ageorges.
Since Skinner's conviction in 1995, he "has tirelessly pursued access to the untested physical evidence," according to court documents filed with the Supreme Court in February.
That evidence includes vaginal swabs and fingernail clippings from Twila Busby, hairs found in her hand and two knives found at the scene, along with a dish towel and a windbreaker jacket, according to the filing.
Skinner has never denied being in the home when Busby and her sons were killed. However, he maintains he was incapacitated because of the "extreme quantities of alcohol and codeine" that he had consumed earlier that evening, according to the documents.
Prosecutors maintain forensic evidence gathered at the scene and witness statements point to Skinner. A female friend of Skinner's who lived four blocks away testified at Skinner's trial that he walked to her trailer and told her that he may have kicked Twila Busby to death, although evidence did not show she had been kicked. The neighbor has since recanted parts of her testimony.
Authorities followed a blood trail from the crime scene to the female friend's trailer and found Skinner in the closet, authorities said. He was "wearing heavily blood-stained jeans and socks and bearing a gash on the palm of his right hand," according to the Texas attorney general's summary of the case.
Authorities said cuts on Skinner's hand came from the knife used to stab the men. Skinner claimed he cut it on glass. Some DNA testing was done, which implicated Skinner, but not on the items he now wants tested.
"DNA testing showed that blood on the shirt Skinner was wearing at the time of his arrest was Twila's blood, and blood on Skinner's jeans was a mixture of blood from Elwin and Twila," authorities said.
However, Owen wrote in the Supreme Court filing, "the victims' injuries show that whoever murdered them must have possessed considerable strength, balance and coordination." Twila Busby was manually strangled - so forcefully that her larynx and the hyoid bone in her throat were broken. She then was struck with an axe or pick handle 14 times, hard enough to drive fragments of her "unusually thick skull" into her brain," the court documents said.
"While attacking Ms. Busby, the perpetrator had to contend with the presence of her six-foot-six-inch, 225-pound son, Elwin Caler, who blood spatter analysis showed was in the immediate vicinity of his mother as she was being beaten," the court filing said.
"Somehow, the murderer was able to change weapons and stab Caler several times before he could fend off the attack or flee." Randy Busby was then stabbed to death in the bedroom the two brothers shared, the documents said.
Evidence presented at trial suggested that Twila Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell - who is now deceased - could have been the killer, according to Owen. At a New Year's Eve party she attended for a short time on the last night of her life, Donnell stalked her, making crude sexual remarks, according to trial testimony.
A friend who drove her home from the party testified she was "fidgety and worried" and that Donnell was no longer at the party when he returned.
"The defense presented evidence that Donnell was a hot-tempered ex-con who had sexually molested a girl, grabbed a pregnant woman by the throat and kept a knife in his car," according to Owen's letter to Perry.
An expert testified at trial Skinner would have been too intoxicated to commit the crimes, and a review of the evidence suggests that Skinner might have been even more intoxicated that initially thought, Owen writes.
Media outlets in Texas have been supportive of a reprieve for Skinner. "Before sending a man to die, we need to be absolutely sure of his guilt," the Houston Chronicle wrote in an editorial Friday.
Skinner's wife, Ageorges, told Radio France Internationale in a Tuesday interview that she began writing to Skinner in 1996 and they began visiting in 2000.
"They just need to do DNA and fingerprint comparison with that other suspect that was never investigated," she said in an audio clip of the interview posted on RFI's Web site. She does not name Donnell, but said the person died in a car accident in 1997.
Recently, questions have swirled in Texas regarding the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for a fire that killed his three daughters. And on March 19, Perry issued a posthumous pardon to the family of Timothy Cole, who was serving a 25-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he died in prison from an asthma attack.
- CNN's Emily Probst contributed to this report.