A number of stories published over the last six months have drawn attention to Texas’s questionable death row policies. Now, The Texas Tribune has the latest with a piece that chronicles the case of Hank Skinner, who was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two mentally disabled adult sons on New Years Eve of 1993 in Pampa, Texas.
According to the piece, the prosecution rested largely on the testimony of a friend of Skinner’s who said he had stumbled into her house on the night of the murders, drunk and bloody, and confessed to killing his girlfriend. But the friend recanted her testimony years later, claiming the police had intimidated her into testifying against Skinner.
What’s more, Skinner’s attorneys claim the prosecution used DNA testing selectively to close the case:
The night of the murders, police collected, among other items, clippings from [the victim’s] broken fingernails, a rape kit, two knives from the crime scene, a bloodstained dish towel and a man’s windbreaker with sweat and hair on it. But most of it has never been DNA-tested. During Skinner’s trial, prosecutors tested some blood and hair from the scene, but not the fingernails, rape kit, knives, towel or windbreaker. Over the last decade, the state has fought Skinner in court to keep it that way.
Skinner doesn’t deny he was in the house that night, but claims he was too intoxicated on alcohol and pills to commit the crimes, and that the police had an ax to grind because of his years of petty crimes. The details are a bit confusing, but the Tribune portrays a case that “is not open and shut,” even as Skinner’s execution is set for February 24.
A couple of recent reports have focused on some of Texas’s more dubious death penalty cases, most famously The New Yorker‘s profile of Cameron Todd Willingham, and more recently a pair of pieces in The Texas Observer, supported by the Investigative Fund. The latest Observer piece looks at the case of a mentally disabled man who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death 14 years ago. In 2008, a judge ruled that the doctor who tested the man’s IQ had gamed the scores to make him eligible for execution. The judge commuted the death sentence to life in prison and now 17 other death row cases involving the same doctor could be reexamined. Hopefully, strong pieces such as these will put some pressure on officials in Texas. At the very least, the stories help open the state’s notorious policies to public view.