No DNA tests for Texas death row inmate, judge decides

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A Texas judge has denied a death row inmate’s request to test DNA evidence his attorneys say could exonerate him; the Supreme Court had weighed in earlier this year on the DNA testing issue connected to the case.

Hank Skinner, 49, is scheduled to be executed Wednesday for the 1993 deaths of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons in Pampa, a Panhandle town about 55 miles east of Amarillo. Skinner has not denied being at the scene of the crime, but says he was too groggy from alcohol and codeine to have killed the trio. He also says that DNA evidence from the scene could prove his innocence.


Skinner’s attorneys have requested DNA testing of evidence that was not tested before his trial in 1995, including blood from the murder weapon, blood from a jacket left in Busby’s home, rape kit results taken from Busby, scrapings from under Busby’s fingernails, and hairs she was clutching when she died. Skinner says he requested the testing before trial, but that his lawyer at the time ignored his request.

Judge Steven R. Emmert denied Skinner’s request in a Thursday order, without explaining why.

One of Skinner’s attorneys, Robert C. Owen, said the team was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the ruling, and planned to appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

‘It will now be up to the Court of Criminal Appeals to give Mr. Skinner’s case the deliberate consideration that is necessary to ensure a correct result,’ Owen, co-director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas School of Law, said in a statement Thursday. ‘We are confident that upon such careful review, the court will conclude that DNA testing is necessary in this case to ensure the reliability of the verdict.”

Prosecutors have called the DNA testing request an attempt to stall the execution. The district attorney handling the case, Lynn Switzer, referred questions to the Texas attorney general’s office; that office had no comment Thursday afternoon, a spokesman said.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Skinner’s execution an hour before he was due to die, then took the time to consider whether federal civil rights law allowed Skinner to challenge Texas judges’ interpretation of required post-conviction DNA testing.

The court ruled in March that it did, but left it to Skinner and his attorneys to argue in federal court that Texas judges had misinterpreted the state’s DNA testing law. The case is pending.

Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature revised the DNA-testing law to clarify that inmates should be able to request testing even if -- as in Skinner’s case -- their lawyer did not request it at their original trial. The law took effect Sept. 1, and Skinner’s attorneys immediately filed for testing under the new law. Switzer’s office responded by requesting an execution date.

It is not clear whether either legal claim will delay the execution, Skinner’s attorney said.

‘For now, the Court of Criminal Appeals must stop the scheduled Nov. 9 execution rather than allow itself to be rushed to a hasty and ill-considered decision,’ Owen said. ‘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.’


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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston