March 24th, 2010
12:50 PM ET

Texas inmate seeks DNA test, last-minute execution reprieve

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, 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.

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Henry Flynn

    Give the inmate what he wants. He just might be innocent!!!! There is no good reason NOT to. Too many innocent people have been sent to prison! If they are guilty, leave there!

    March 24, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Devin

    "Before sending a man to die, we need to be absolutely sure of his guilt," the Houston Chronicle wrote in an editorial Friday.

    March 24, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  3. davonskevort

    i think we need to re-do how we do justice in america. No gimics forensic investigation should be done for all crimes. No, i saw so n so with something garbage... thats 1800's stuff. if a defendant wants something tested it should be tested... no testing purely dictated by the prosicution. at anypoint an inmate should be able to ask for expanded retesting of forensic evidence.

    March 24, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Deborah Belknap

    Why isn't he entitled to the same justice as anyone else? If there is evidence to be tested, let it be tested. Do we want to be responsible for the execution of another innocent man?

    March 24, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ave

      It seems in most cases the only reason evidence is witheld or the innocent executed is for political reasons alone. And we all know that when politics are involved everyones life is fair gain (game).

      July 23, 2010 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. catherine turley

    it's disturbing how many people either want to kill him or just don't care. according to skeptical juror, nearly 350 people have been exonerated. it defies logic to forge ahead and kill someone without testing all of the evidence.

    March 24, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • frank from florida

      And why do they wait until the last minute to do the testing? Even if they are exonerated, They have been on death row for years, and that's no picnic, waking up every morning in a cell knowing you'll never get out, except in a coffin.

      June 14, 2010 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |
  6. Texan

    I would have thought they (the investigators involved in the case) had already done that. If all the evidence wasn’t presented how could there be a conviction? I’m a Texan and I know there have been cases when someone innocent has been imprisoned. I would dare say this sort of thing happens in other states as well. Let him have the test, what are the authorities afraid of, finding out they had the wrong man?

    March 25, 2010 at 7:50 am | Report abuse |
  7. College Student

    If anyone has read the non-fiction novel, The Innocent Man by John Grisham, they would firmly believe that all DNA testing of any possible suspects should be exhausted before sending a (possibly) innocent man to his death. The convicted man in the book was 5 days away from his execution when he was found innocent because of last minute DNA testing! I agree with Texan that they should just let him have the test.

    June 9, 2010 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  8. coolncalm

    Rick Perry should be kicked out as governor if he does not grant DNA testing for this inmate.
    Rick Perry is giving Texas a bad name in every way possible – now with life and death.
    Rick Perry should oust himself and secede from Texas and go to a Tea Party state.
    Rick Perry represents everything wrong with Republicans and Tea Partiers today.

    June 9, 2010 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
    • frank from florida

      I agree and the Texas board of pardons(oops, I mean Convictions!) along with him, because they always side with the state, never the inmate, even when there is additional evidence to be tested.

      June 14, 2010 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
  9. john

    Americans no longer care about justice. We foolishly believe the police, and courts are filled with honest people.

    June 9, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Joe, LA, CA

    years and years the DNA issue could have been resolved.. but not until D day does it become important.. what a sham..

    June 11, 2010 at 6:07 am | Report abuse |
  11. starglow

    DNA testing doesnt lie it can get a innocent person out of prison. it can also get a person whos guilty in prison.. im happy With DNA it works for both sides now.. if they ever bring the electric chair back they will know for sure that they got the right person cause of DNA...

    June 14, 2010 at 1:15 am | Report abuse |
  12. ROGER

    Gov. Perry better do a DNA test like the prisoner has asked as I feel the same way as other people if Gov. Perry dosn't
    allow it and the execution proceeds and later finds out he executed an innocent man Go. Perry should be kicked out on his rear end as all Governors want to do is to play politics and make them self look good so the state will re-elect
    them next time around and just like George Bush he did the samre thing to make himself look good politically.

    July 22, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • MJI

      Good ol Texas...Is this the so-called "Western Type Justice?" It sickens me to realize how many innocent people mahe have been murdered by this state. I heard a commentator last ninght say that "If you take the BS out of Texas, then the state would be the size of Rhode Island." The governor (as George Bush), should be embarassed. Personally, I wouldn't be caught driving through the state.

      July 23, 2010 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
  13. KennyB

    The state of Texas needs to back off and do what's right. Texas is getting a well deserved reputation for being bloodthirsty execuctioners. Testing the DNA evidence will ultimately prove them right or prove them wrong. But you can't undo an execution once you have done it. How could they sleep at night knowing there's evidence that might clear Skinner and they refused to look at it. Skinner might cheat death for a month or so but in the end, if he's lying, he'll be just as dead.

    July 23, 2010 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
  14. tuck-tuck-57

    Give the man the test.From reading all comments here about this inmates fate in Texas give him the test,but why did it take up till now to ask for this.I,m fro m Manitoba,Canada +watch the news daily,home,and the world.Stories like this I hear every day.

    July 23, 2010 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  15. dna test

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    April 6, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |