The Case of Hank Skinner and DNA Testing

November 16, 2011

Political action


On New Year’s Eve 1993, Twila Busby and her two sons were found strangled and stabbed to death in their home in rural Pampa, Texas. On March 18th, 1995, Hank Skinner, Busby’s boyfriend, was found guilty of the triple murder, and was sentenced to death by lethal injection. However, since his conviction Skinner has been granted three stays of execution, with the most recent being on November 9th, 2011. When Skinner was arrested just hours after the bodies were found on New Year’s day 1994, there was blood found on his clothing, that initial DNA tests showed it to be the blood of the victims, however, additional tests on those same pieces of clothing have since shown inconclusive results. However, the first test, which was the only one to come back positive, was one of the keys factors in the jury’s decision to sentence Skinner to death.

To make things even more interesting, on September 1st, 2011 a new law went into effect in the state of Texas which says that DNA testing can be done at any time, regardless of when it is asked for if someone’s life is at stake. However, there has been much debate whether this law includes cases that were tried prior to September 1st, 2011, and the prosecutors in Skinner’s case have refused to allow any DNA testing to be redone. Additionally, since 2000 the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University (along with many other similar projects) has tested new physical evidence that witnesses said was critical to the case, including fingernail clippings from Twila Busby, possible murder weapons and a windbreaker covered in blood and hair, found at the murder scene. None of this evidence was used during the original trial. After Northwestern University professor David Protess openly challenged the district attorney to test the blood and hair found on the wind breaker, the state of Texas finally carried out preliminary tests, which showed neither the blood nor hair belonged to any of the 3 victims or Hank Skinner. After these results were made public, further testing was halted by the prosecution and the state, saying that this evidence could not be used, as it was not part of the original trial.

Since these events, the case has generated worldwide interest, and opinion polls in major newspapers such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, all showed that the majority of respondents thought Skinner should be able to appeal for more DNA testing. Finally, a petition that garnered 130,000 signatures in just two days was able to help convince Governor Perry to postpone Skinner’s execution. Many legal experts, including Locke Bowman who helps lead the Innocence Project at Northwestern, believe the reason prosecutors and the state are trying to disallow further testing is because they think it will weaken their case and potentially exonerate Skinner. They also say that because prosecutors often spend large parts of their professional lives working on a single cases (like this one), that they are willing to do anything, even withhold evidence so that they can win the case.

Although I do see the argument the prosecution is making about this case not being tried before September 1st, 2001 which in their eyes makes it unprotected by Texas’ new law, I simply do not see how you can refuse to test new evidence that may exonerate someone who has been incarcerated for over 25 years. How do you think Machiavelli, Locke and Rousseau would feel about this? Would they say that this is just an unfortunate circumstance, that the law must be followed and the new evidence should not be tested; or would they insist that Skinner be given one more chance to prove his innocence by having further testing done? Do you think this new law is in violation of Skinner’s 6th amendment?

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3 Comments on “The Case of Hank Skinner and DNA Testing”

  1. mjgeis Says:

    It’s cases like this that sometimes make me wonder about prosecution teams and where they draw the line between scoring a conviction and enabling a murder. What happened to the mantra of “innocent until proven guilty”? I feel like guilt in any case hangs by a thread that can easily be cut by an influx of new evidence. Such is the case with Hank Skinner. Evidence which may indicate his innocence is being disregarded, hell, even covered up by prosecutors. I just wonder what it is that they really want out of this? Do they want to see a potentially innocent man be killed? Is this their idea of justice?

    Locke certainly expressed belief in man’s unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. He would certainly think that Skinner’s right to life was being violated in this instance; I’m sure Locke would understand that occasionally men do give up their right to life upon committing certain acts, but only with greatest reluctance and tentativeness. He would most likely be willing to grant a man his right to life back the instant there was a shred of evidence indicating his innocence, because one of his three fundamental rights as a human being lies in the balance.

    I wonder if these prosecutors realize that the more fanatically they do their jobs, the more likely it is an innocent man will be sent to die.

  2. Connor Baharozian Says:

    I believe that all possible means of recovering/interpreting evidence must be attempted in all court cases. Of course, however, the means of these attempts must be reasonable. For example, torturing someone to testify or produce a statement is just wrong, obviously. I think that in the case of Hank Skinner, all DNA testing should be done so as to try to provide a clear picture for judges. Yes, much DNA testing was already done, but what is the harm of doing more of it/doing some of it over again. The more ‘facts’ to a case the better. I don’t know if people have a preconceived notion that Skinner is guilty, but in the USA, we maintain that people are “innocent until proven guilty.” The first commenter makes a great point about this.

    This case is similar to the case of Troy Davis which was all over the news just a couple of months ago. It seems that perceptions are playing more of a role in these cases than we want them to in our judicial system. Unless there is convincing evidence that shows Skinner to be guilty, his innocence should be maintained. To determine if there is evidence to convict him, much work must be done in regards to DNA testing as well as other investigation methods.

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