June 13, 2012: Evidence Missing in Skinner Case
June 2, 2012: Update: State Backs DNA Testing for Hank Skinner
By Bruce Fischer
Hank Skinner was convicted on March 18, 1995, for the murder of his girlfriend and her two sons in Pampa, Texas on New Year’s Eve, 1993. Skinner was given the death sentence for his alleged crimes.
Skinner has maintained his innocence from day one. At the time of the murders, Skinner was living with the victims, Twila Busby and her two sons, Randy Busby, and Elwin “Scooter” Caler. He admitted being in the house at the time of the murders but claims he was passed out on a couch in a comatose condition from a near-lethal dose of alcohol and codeine.
According to Skinner, he was awoken by Elwin Caler after Caler had already suffered mortal wounds. Caler then left the house and died on a neighbor’s porch, apparently trying to get help. Skinner left the house as well, going four blocks away to the home of Andrea Joyce Reed, an ex-girlfriend of Skinner’s. Skinner was arrested hours later in Reed’s home wearing blood-spattered clothing that tested positive for two of the victims.
This was an easy case for the authorities. The blood-spattered clothes put Skinner at the scene and Reed testified that Skinner threatened her and told her not to call the police. Why would anyone believe Skinner’s steadfast pleas of innocence?
Let’s take a closer look at the case as it has unfolded over the past 17 years. Then you can decide if Hank Skinner should be put to death.
Was Hank Skinner in any condition to commit the horrendous crime? The defense’s toxicology expert at trial indicated that Skinner was nearly comatose at the time of the murders from a near-lethal mixture of codeine and vodka. Skinner had a blood alcohol level of .2 (more than twice the legal limit), and .44 grams of codeine per 100 ml. of blood.
Dr. Harold Kalant, professor emeritus of Toxicology and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto, reviewed the case in 2010 and had this to say: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the heavy drinker would be able to move about somewhat, but he would be very confused and badly impaired and would have difficulty standing or walking in a coordinated manner”
Hank Skinner is 5’9″ tall and weighed 140 pounds at the time of the murders. Skinners right hand is severely handicapped due to an accident causing nerve damage. When looking at Skinner’s physical stature along with his impaired condition, one has to ask if it was even remotely possible that he committed the crime. Keep in mind that Elwin Caler was 6’6″ tall and weighed 265 pounds.
Skinner was convicted based on the clothing he was wearing along with the testimony of Andrea Joyce Reed. If we look at the case today, we see that Reed has recanted her testimony and that numerous pieces of evidence were never properly analyzed.
Reed recanted her testimony in a 1997 affidavit. Reed states in the affidavit that her testimony was false. She admits that Skinner was unable to stand when he arrived at her home and that she had to practically carry him wherever he went.
Why did Reed Lie? Reed claimed that she feared that she was being looked at as a suspect. She said that comments were made to her at the police station that she could be arrested and charged with being an accessory to capital murder after the fact, and for harboring a fugitive. Here are a couple of excerpts from her affidavit:
“Officers were constantly questioning me as I was giving my statement, which resulted in ameliorations of the facts of what actually occurred that night. Things were suggested to me and I complied, out of fear of arrest and the police taking my children away, which was mentioned several times.”
“At trial, I stated that, in my opinion, he was capable of committing the crime with which he was charged. The truth is that, in my opinion, and as a matter of fact, he was incapable of committing any physical action against any person. He could not even use the bathroom facilities on his own. I had to hold him up and help him.”
The evidence that has been left untested or completely ignored is shocking. It was never revealed at trial that two of the murder weapons could not be traced to Skinner. Bloody fingerprints found on a pickax handle and knife did not belong to Skinner, yet they were not discussed at trial. A second knife was also recovered from the scene, along with a bloody towel and jacket. None of these items have been tested.
Blood and skin were found under the fingernails of Busby indicating that she put up a fight. Tests were never conducted on Busby’s fingernail clippings. The hair found in Busby’s hands along with vaginal swabs taken at the time of her autopsy has also never been tested.
Why did Skinner’s attorney allow this evidence to be ignored at trial? Harold Lee Comer was Skinner’s appointed counsel. Comer was a former district attorney that had lost his job after pleading guilty to embezzling seized drug money. On top of losing his job, Comer was hit with a $90,000 bill from the IRS for unpaid income taxes. Times were tough for Comer. Thankfully he had a good friend in Judge M. Kent Sims, the judge presiding over Skinner’s murder trial. Judge Sims appointed Comer to represent Skinner, awarding him with an $86,000 payday. This was the largest paycheck given to a court-appointed attorney in Texas history.
It gets better. Comer had twice tried to convict Skinner for non-violent felonies while he was district attorney. This caused an obvious conflict of interest. Judge Sims knew of the conflict and by law should have given Skinner an opportunity to request new counsel but Sims never did so.
Whether the details of Comer’s arrival had anything to do with his poor performance in court is anyone’s guess. He failed miserably when it came to presenting the evidence. He didn’t even request for additional DNA testing and left out crucial details when suggesting another possible suspect, Twila Busby’s uncle, Robert Donnell (Donnell died in an automobile accident in 1997). According to eyewitness reports, Busby had been harassed at a New Year’s Eve party by Donnell shortly before she was murdered. Critical information regarding Donnell was never heard at trial. One witness’s affidavit wasn’t collected until 2 1/2 years after the trial concluded. You can read more about Robert Donnell at TheSkepticalJuror.com.
Hank Skinner is now represented by Rob Owen, co-director of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law’s Capital Punishment Clinic. All DNA that Skinner’s defense team seeks to have analyzed, was available for testing at Skinner’s first trial. Skinner’s attorney, Harold Comer, chose not to have it analyzed believing it could further incriminate his client. Skinner contends that he never agreed with the decision made by Comer.
All requests for additional DNA testing have been denied on the grounds that Skinner’s trial attorney, Harold Comer, did not seek the analysis during the first trial. Should Hank Skinner be put to death because he was given inadequate counsel?
Skinner’s life is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. Do defendants have the right to request DNA testing? When the sentence is death, should we not take extra precautions?
Do I believe that Hank Skinner is innocent? Much like the Troy Davis case, I cannot say that I know the answer. What I do know is that there are too many unanswered questions in both cases to put either of the two to death. Unfortunately, it is too late for Troy Davis. We cannot allow for this to happen again. Test the DNA! Answer the Questions!
Like Hank Skinner Says: “all the District Attorney’s gotta do is turn over the evidence, test it and let the chips fall where they may. If I’m innocent, I go home, if I’m guilty I die…”