May 24th, 2010
11:13 AM ET

U.S. Supreme Court to hear Texas death row case

A Texas death row inmate will get a hearing before the Supreme Court over his claims of "actual innocence" and demands authorities conduct more thorough DNA testing of evidence gathered at the crime scene. At issue is whether capital inmates have a basic federal civil right to have forensic evidence reviewed late in the appeal process.

Supporters of Henry Skinner, convicted of the murders of three acquaintances, say if he loses this appeal, an innocent man could be put to death.

The state says he is not entitled to testing of evidence that was not analyzed before his 1995 trial.

The justices had issued a stay just before his scheduled March 24 execution. The court will now schedule oral arguments for the fall, to decide the larger constitutional questions. Federal appeals courts have split on the issue in recent years.

Skinner, 47, was convicted of the New Year's Eve 1993 killings of his live-in girlfriend and her two adult sons. He strongly denies any involvement, and claims retesting would prove his innocence and determine the real killer.

His lawyers welcomed the high court's decision to intervene. "We look forward to the opportunity to persuade the court that if a state official arbitrarily denies a prisoner access to evidence for DNA testing, the prisoner should be allowed to challenge that decision in a federal civil rights lawsuit," said attorney Rob Owen.

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 mobile home 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 home 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.

Also found stabbed to death were Elwin "Scooter" Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20.

In addition, authorities said cuts on Skinner's hand came from the knife used to stab the men. The onetime oil field worker said he cut it on glass. Some DNA testing was done that implicated Skinner, but not on the items he now wants examined, including vaginal swabs from Busby, fingernail clippings, two knives, and items of clothing.

"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," state officials 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." Skinner claimed he had been passed out on a couch from a combination of vodka and codeine, and that he was physically unable to commit the crimes.

An expert testified at trial that 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 than initially thought, Owen wrote.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry had received more than 8,000 letters from Skinner's advocates urging a new trial, according to the Innocence Project and, whose members and supporters have sent the letters through their Web sites.

Evidence presented at trial suggested that Twila Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell - who is now dead - could have been the killer. 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.

Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, who married Skinner in 2008, told CNN in March that she began writing to Skinner in 1996 and they began visiting in 2000.

"I'm convinced of his innocence not because I love him and he's my husband, I'm convinced of his innocence ... [because] there is scientific forensic evidence to prove that he was not even in a state to stand up at the time of the crime let alone murder three people that he loved," Ageorges-Skinner, a French woman, said on "Larry King Live." "There is absolutely no motive."

Texas has executed more prisoners than any state since 1976. Ten condemned inmates have died by lethal injection since January.

Recently, questions have swirled in Texas regarding the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for a fire that killed his three daughters, and allegations he was not guilty of the murders.

On March 19, Perry issued a posthumous pardon for Timothy Cole, who was serving a 25-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he died in prison from an asthma attack. After his death, DNA tests established his innocence, and another man confessed to the crime.

The Supreme Court case is Skinner v. Switzer (09-9000).

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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. NJB

    After his death, DNA tests established his innocence, and another man confessed to the crime. That's not exactly true. The real rapist confessed to the crime over a year before Timothy Cole died. He waited until the statute of limitations had expired, and then confessed to the crime. The prosecutor knew he was innocent and chose not to act on that information because it wasn't politically expedient for him. Later, the true rapist sent a letter to the family of Cole. By that time, Cole was dead due to lack of medical aid in prison. The family pushed for the pardon and the prosecutor would not reopen the case. They had to go outside of the county to get anyone to do anything. That prosecutor should be in jail, but no. Texas is an embarrassment to the the idea of fairness and the rule of law. They're more interested in showing how tough they are on crime than they are in making sure the people they kill are innocent or guilty.

    May 24, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Donal

      Beautifully written and accurate.

      August 24, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • tom

      Well said, my question is Why do they have a statue of limitations ?

      August 24, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hangem Hi

      I'm a Texan and i thankgod i live here because if anybody killed anyone in my family i know they would pay the ultimate price. YeeeeeeHaaaaaa!

      August 27, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      to Hangem Hi:
      While I have no doubt that 'someone' would pay the "ultimate price", I have severe doubts that it would be that actual killer.
      (Especially when blatant corruption such as happened with tens of thousands of cases at the infamous "Houston Crime Lab" debacle is pretty much "standard operating procedure" throughout the state!)

      August 28, 2010 at 1:21 am | Report abuse |
  2. ruffnutt

    ah kill the guy... you can always give him a posthumous pardon. im sure the other guy didnt mind.

    May 24, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tzivia

    Am I missing something? Isn't Truth a prerequisite for Justice? Are legalisms and expediencies the final arbiter of whether a person's life should be taken?

    May 26, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. sandy

    If they are so sure he did it, why are the people from the DA office refusing further testing that would really prove it forever.... Maybe they are not that sure to have the right guy or they would be the first one to ask for those tests to be done

    June 12, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  5. mvr

    Money buys justice. If you have it (money) there is a good possibility that you can walk. If you're moneyless look out, in some states the authorities make the evidence lean the way the prosecutor wants it to. I also know of instances were deals were made between the prosecutor and the defense attorney(not plea bargains). And of hearing if you have this much money this is the time you will do, if you have this much money you will walk.

    June 13, 2010 at 5:53 am | Report abuse |
  6. Viper1j

    The mere fact that this is an issue, only confirms what I've believed about Texans for a long time. The only difference between them and a Charlie Manson, is that Manson got caught.

    That any person would even RISK killing an innocent man, speaks volumes about the nature of that person, and their culture.

    August 6, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hangem Hi

      Your assuming he's innocent.Don't kill in Texas and you should be alright. We don't coddle criminals, period. You don't like it, move to californy thats the piace you otta be....

      August 27, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      Unless of course, a cop decides it's easier to frame you then it is to actually look for the guilty party....then you are just screwed and stupid rednecks will all chime in that you somehow "deserve it"....

      August 28, 2010 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
  7. christopher

    Innocent or guilty as sin he won't get another chance to exhonerate himself. The SCOTUS is more likely to grant the request than Texas but they are still pretty hard headed and seem to always be more interested in making sure everything went the way it should have procedurally than making sure no innocent person is executed. They are so intelligent that they've become ignorant and lacking of common sense and decency.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. bml

    As a Texan, I can unequivocally say that the so-called 'justice' system in Texas is an utter abomination. It is absolutely true that it doesn't matter one iota to them whether or not an innocent life is put to death, or a person brought to utter ruin. I'm glad I'm not the only one who is disturbed by the fact that they would argue NOT to ensure that EVERY bit of evidence be scrutinized PRIOR to putting someone to death or in order to keep from freeing an innocent person. There is NO LOGIC whatsoever in that!! That only leaves one thing – – a personal agenda. My only comfort is knowing that they will answer to their Maker for that – – there is no escape from the final judgment.

    August 24, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hangem Hi

      You wouldn't be talkin crap if it was your family that was slaughtered. No, probly not. You would be visiting the killer so you could forgive him and become friends. You may live here but thats about it. You make me sick.

      August 27, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. sylvia saenz

    Check all the available evidence! For crying out loud, the U.S. has been more lenient with prisoners at GITMO than its own citizens.

    August 25, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Don E. Moore

    As a retired prison chaplain in Texas, I can say that too many are convicted who are not guilty of anything but ignorance of their rights under the law and others could have been given leniency and were not. So, when it comes to the death penalty, how can Texas execute anyone and be sure they are doing justice?

    August 27, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jack

    Test the DNA – big whup.

    August 27, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Viper1j

    To Hangem Hi:

    I really hope it doesn't take something like your son getting set up for you to get a clue. We'll see how much you heeyah when your boy is strapped to the gurney.

    September 21, 2010 at 4:48 am | Report abuse |