Monday, June 4, 2012

Attorney general agrees to seek DNA testing in 1993 Pampa slaying

Reversing its decade-long objection to testing that Death Row inmate Hank Skinner says could prove his innocence, the Texas attorney general's office filed an advisory with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking to test DNA in the case.

"Upon further consideration, the State believes that the interest of justice would best be served by DNA testing the evidence requested by Skinner and by testing additional items identified by the state," lawyers for the state wrote in the advisory.

Skinner, now 50, was convicted in 1995 of the strangulation and beating death of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and the stabbing deaths of her two adult sons on New Year's Eve 1993 in Pampa. Skinner maintains that he is innocent and says he was unconscious on the couch at the time of the killings, intoxicated from a mixture of vodka and codeine.

Rob Owen, co-director of the University of Texas at Austin's Capital Punishment Clinic, said he is pleased that the state "finally appears willing to work with us to make that testing a reality."

The details of the testing, he said, will still need to be arranged to ensure that the evidence is properly handled and identified.

"Texans expect accuracy in this death penalty case, and the procedures to be employed must ensure their confidence in the outcome," he said in an e-mailed statement. "We look forward to cooperating with the State to achieve this DNA testing as promptly as possible."

State lawyers have opposed the testing, arguing that it could not prove Skinner's innocence and that it would encourage other guilty inmates to delay justice by seeking tests. But the state reversed its course June 1 and has prepared a joint order to allow the tests.

Since 2000, Skinner has asked the courts to allow testing on evidence that was not analyzed for his original trial, including a rape kit, material from Busby's fingernails, sweat and hair from a man's jacket, a bloody towel and knives. Owen told the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in a hearing last month that if DNA testing on all the evidence points to someone other than Skinner, it could create reasonable doubt about his client's guilt.

The advisory was filed a month after that hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in which the nine judges grilled attorneys for the state about their continued resistance to the testing after a spate of DNA exonerations in Texas. In Texas, at least 45 inmates have been exonerated based on DNA evidence.

"You really ought to be absolutely sure before you strap a person down and kill him," Judge Michael Keasler said at the hearing.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, praised the attorney general's action. Legislators approved a bill last year that Ellis wrote amending the state's post-conviction DNA testing law to allow for such analysis in cases like Skinner's.

By Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune

Source: The Fort Worth Star Telegram

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