Defending The Skinner Conviction

When I received an email from the Skeptical Juror Project, imploring me to get behind the efforts to exonerate Hank Skinner.  The email informed me that he was factually innocent, but Texas was going to kill him anyway.  I knew nothing about Skinner, having somehow missed Radley Balko’s post at Reason about him.

The email told a saga that’s both hard to believe and easy to accept.  It told the story in detail:

Announcing it would do “whatever it took” to “shut up” those who doubted Mr. Skinner’s guilt, the State of Texas submitted fourteen pieces of evidence for post-conviction DNA testing. None on the results inculpated Mr. Skinner. To the contrary, the results either excluded him or were deemed “inconclusive.”

Notably, a hair found clutched in the victim’s hand, a hair declared by the district attorney prior to testing to have been grasped from the murderer as the victim struggled for her life, excluded Hank Skinner as the donor.

Without shame, the State quickly secreted other test results, particularly those for bloody and broken fingernail clippings and those for a rape kit. The fingernail clippings are especially significant because Hank Skinner had no fingernail scratches on his body. Nonetheless, the State refuses to reveal those results, the status of the testing, or the physical location of the evidence. Indeed, the State refuses to acknowledge even the existence of the evidence which, prior to testing, was well-kept and allegedly probative. The State’s behavior is particularly egregious since it announced with confidence beforehand that the testing would “put a few more nails in that man’s coffin.”

And finally, the State refuses to release for testing additional probative DNA evidence, though David Protess of the Medill Innocence Project has offered for more than a decade to fund it. Items which remain untested include a bloody knife and a bloody axe handle (the likely murder weapons), a bloody dish towel (found in a trash bag with a handprint from an unidentified third party), and a foreign windbreaker (contaminated with hairs, blood, and sweat.)

As Radley notes, the system takes pride in its work, and fights hard to make sure a conviction stays that way.  After all, it would present a terrible burden if we were forced to second guess every conviction, deal with the open issue, accommodate the demands for testing.  If we keep finding out the innocent are being convicted, people will lose faith in the system.  That would be a travesty, as faith in the system is paramount.  Without faith, we would feel awfully bad about executing people.  Some of us, at least.

What stands about Skinner’s case is the fact that it falls into that very narrow category of cases where DNA exists, can be tested, and can serve its purpose of providing far better proof than a facile theory or well-tuned argument.  When the state fights it, the DNA starts to emit an unpleasant odor that permeates the conviction.  Why fight it, Texas?  What are you afraid of?

I appreciate a good use of rhetoric as much as the next guy, and the state’s “nail in the coffin” language is particularly apropos.  It’s tough and manly, as one would expect from Texas.  But after the chest thumping, the tough guys of Texas have to put up or shut up.  Now they just look like a bunch of sissies, afraid of a little DNA.

Not knowing enough about Hank Skinner’s case, it’s impossible for me to come out and say that he’s an innocent man.  I haven’t a clue.  Even with the respect I have for Balko’s view, and he’s no doubt more familiar with the case having written about it and asserted that Texas is about to execute an innocent man, I hesitate to declare a position.

But I do not hesitate to state that the lawmen behind the Skinner execution are all hat and no cattle.  If you want to put a man to death, then allow the defendant to test the DNA.  Disclose the full results of whatever testing you’ve done.  As the email concluded:

With a robust and collective condemnation against the practice of executing factually exonerated individuals, the innocence community will help curtail the abuse of our government’s power to take from its citizenry their inalienable right to life.

They’re right about that.  Just because this is happening in Texas doesn’t mean that the rest of the nation doesn’t care.  Protecting your conviction isn’t a good enough reason to put an innocent man to death.  Even in Texas.  Let’s see if there’s anything under that big, macho, ten-gallon hat of yours before you push the plunger.

5 thoughts on “Defending The Skinner Conviction

  1. Radley Balko

    I’m not certain Skinner is innocent. My position is similar to yours — only that the state ought to test the remaining DNA. If the material under the victim’s nails comes back to Skinner and only Skinner, seems to me there’s a good chance he’s guilty. If it comes back a match to the uncle, seems like there’s enough doubt to merit Skinner’s release. The state’s position seems to be that we should only test DNA if it will create more certainty, not less. That strikes me as a pretty abhorrent position.

  2. SHG

    Sorry about mistating your view.  I just reread your post and it’s clear that the position you take is to follow the evidence, wherever it leads.  But I think the state’s position is to not so much to test DNA only if it creates more certainty, but to avoid doing anything that might upset a conviction.  They aleady have the win, and want to do nothing that could seize defeat from the jaws of victory.

  3. Skeptical Juror

    I don’t claim to have the experience of either Scott or Radley. But I’ve actually sat in both the witness box and the jury box, many times as it turns out. I’ve helped defendants avoid wrongful convictions, I’m working now to assist someone wrongfully convicted, and I’ve researched many cases as part of my effort to improve our jury system.

    That said, the Hank Skinner case is by far the most egregious case I’ve come across.

    Should the Hank Skinner execution proceed, as I have little doubt it will, it will set a new low for justice in this country since we started using DNA as the gold standard for establishing factual guilt or innocence.

  4. Skeptical Niece

    THANK YOU to SHG for discussing this matter on Simple Justice, and THANK YOU to Radley Balko for ongoing discussions on The Agitator. I would just like to clarify that we at The Skeptical Juror are also careful not to declare factual “innocence.” Indeed, the DNA which we all seek would speak for itself. On the other hand, factual “exoneration” occurred when DA John Mann stated that hairs clutched in the victim’s hand would identify the murderer. Those hairs were tested post-conviction, and they unequivocally excluded Hank Skinner. It is thus upon John Mann’s own criteria that The Skeptical Juror republishes Hank Skinner’s factual exoneration.

    Of significance: Other DNA samples were in fact sent for post-conviction testing by John Mann. A rape kit. Fingernail clippings. However, when results began proving that possibly two other men, neither of whom were Hank Skinner, were the actual murderers, suddenly all remaining DNA was quickly locked up and the results of the rape kit and fingernails were withheld.

    Current DA Lynn Switzer keeps both the remaining undisclosed DNA results, as well as copious untested DNA, secreted from scrutiny. Why? “It’s already been handled.” With an apathetic governor who might otherwise commute the execution to a life sentence to allow time for DNA testing, the DNA in Lynn Switzer’s evidence locker will likely disappear on Skinner’s execution.

    So, this is more than a case of available untested DNA. By DA John Mann’s own criteria, Hank Skinner is factually exonerated. And while actual innocence cannot be declared without testing the remaining DNA, that which has already been tested is highly persuasive of innocence.

    Proceeding with the execution under these circumstances is a chilling and inhumane prospect indeed.

  5. Albert Nygren

    I don’t know whether this man is guilty or not. I certainly am aware that you can’t trust the prosecution to be honest just because they are in the government. Can’t a judge be found that would make the prosecution bring out all the evidence?

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