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Stay of Execution Granted for Hank Skinner

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UPDATE: Reason reports that “A spokesperson in Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s office has confirmed that a stay of execution has been granted for Hank Skinner, the Texas man convicted in 1995 for the murder of his girlfriend and her two adult sons two years earlier. The stay comes from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, not Perry himself.” Radley Balko adds that it’s not an order for DNA testing but rather “a stay to determine if he should get DNA testing.” Certainly good news for now.

Hank Skinner is a Texas death row inmate. He was convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons on New Year’s Eve in 1993. He is set to be executed this Wednesday.

Those are the stone-cold facts. Skinner, unfortunately, is in a similar boat to Georgia’s recently executed inmate Troy Davis. Both men maintained their innocence throughout their stay on death row. Davis never got the chance to clear his name. Skinner is trying to do so before Wednesday.

Since 2001, Skinner and his team of lawyers have been trying to convince the court to run DNA tests on items found at the crime scene, such as fingernails, vaginal swabs from Busby, bloody towels, and two knives, none of which that were not analyzed during the initial trial.

Skinner claims he was passed out from a combination of vodka and codeine, which toxicology reports seem to corroborate.

Every attempt by his lawyers to secure the additional DNA testing that may set him free has been denied by the courts. Oddly, during the trial in 1995, Skinner’s lawyer didn’t seek additional DNA testing on other items because the defense team was worried it would harm Skinner. Blood found at the crime scene belonged to Skinner, though he maintained it came from cutting his hand on glass left behind at the scene during the violent attack on his wife and kids.

“I have never had a case where we had to fight 10 years to get DNA tests,” Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, who has worked on hundreds of death row cases, told the Texas Tribune. “This kind of protracted litigation is extremely rare these days.”

Texas has created one of the strongest post-conviction DNA laws in the nation, and since Skinner has been in prison, 45 inmates have been exonerated based on the results of DNA testing. Skinner has applied three times for post-conviction DNA testing and has been denied all three times.

Back in March 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution an hour before he was originally scheduled to die. The SJC wanted to determine if the lower courts acted constitutionally when rejecting Skinner’s previous three appeal requests. The SJC ruled in the lower courts’ favor.

His fourth and perhaps final appeal comes just days before his scheduled execution. Last week, Texas judge Steven R. Emmert denied Skinner’s request without explanation. 

“The stakes in this case are too high to allow Mr. Skinner to be executed before he has a fair chance to make his case that the trial court made a grave mistake in denying his request for DNA testing,” said Robert Owen, an attorney for Skinner, the AP reports.

Skinner also filed a federal lawsuit claiming Texas violated his civil rights by withholding access to the DNA evidence. The lawsuit, however, has been put on hold until Skinner’s appeals run through the state courts and will probably matter little if he is executed.

It’s hard to say how Skinner feels about the process this week with his execution looming, but in an interview with CNN back in 2009, he was fairly blunt on the matter: “All the district attorney has got to do is turn over the evidence and test it, and let the chips fall where they may. If I’m innocent, I go home. If I’m guilty, I die. What’s so hard about that?”

A group of current and former prosecutors and lawmakers sent a letter asking Texas Gov. Rick Perry to delay Skinner’s execution so the DNA evidence could be tested. Perry’s office said it was “a matter pending before the courts.”

Indeed it is. But when a man’s life hangs in the balance, shouldn’t every precaution be taken to ensure it is a life that deserves to be executed? Shouldn’t death row executions be a last resort reserved for the worst crimes imaginable? Haven’t states been down this road enough, especially Texas, which has executed more prisoners than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976?

Did the absurd case of Cameron Todd Willingham mean nothing to the state?!

Like Skinner said, test the evidence, let the chips fall, if he’s innocent he goes home, if he’s guilty he dies. What could be simpler to do, even as it seems so difficult?

PREVIOUSLY IN OUR COVERAGE:

No Doubt: We Need a New Death Penalty Standard
• Georgia Executes Troy Davis After Supreme Court Denies Appeal
• Is Georgia Set to Execute a Wrongly Convicted Man?
• Who Deserves to Die and Who Deserves to Rot in Prison?
• What “Always Erring on the Side of Life” Really Looks Like

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