Prosecutors in Texas are refusing to hand over key evidence gathered at a murder scene for DNA testing, even though lawyers for a man scheduled to be executed believe it might prove his innocence.
With days to go before Hank Skinner is due to die by lethal injection, his lawyers are battling to persuade the federal and state courts to intervene to delay the execution and force prosecutors to hand over the materials for testing. The legal fight over the items has already lasted a decade.
Skinner, 49, was put on death row in 1995 for murdering his girlfriend Twila Busby and her two adult sons. He has consistently maintained his innocence, saying that he was virtually unconscious on the night of the murders, having consumed a mixture of vodka and codeine.
The dispute over the untested items has already reached the top of the US judicial system once. In March last year, the US Supreme Court ordered Skinner’s death to be delayed when he was 35 minutes away from being executed.
Then in March this year, the same panel ruled that Skinner had the right to sue through the lower courts for the items to be released for DNA testing.
Despite that ruling and a new law that took effect in Texas on Sept. 1 designed to make DNA testing more readily available in serious criminal cases, the chief prosecutor in Texas, Greg Abbott, proceeded to push for a new execution date. It was duly set for Wednesday next week.
Last week, 17 top Texan legal figures and politicians — including a former governor, judges, former prosecutors, senior police officers and state senators — sent a joint letter to Abbott and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is running to be the Republican presidential candidate. Skinner’s death would be the 237th execution under Perry’s governorship.
The letter accused the state of showing “official indifference to the possibility of error” in the case and criticized its “stubborn refusal to test all the evidence.”
One of the signatories, Sam Millsap, said prosecutors were under a duty to see justice done and should be leading the fight to encourage DNA testing, rather than resisting it.
“I have no idea whether Skinner committed these murders, but that’s why I want these items to be DNA tested so that we can be certain,” he said.