Ellis: DNA Testing in Skinner Case Long Overdue
Last month, CCA ruled testing must be ordered as a result of SB 122, post-conviction DNA testing
(Austin, Texas)// Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today praised the order by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to analyze previously untested DNA evidence in the Hank Skinner case. Last month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals left the clear impression that the Skinner evidence must be tested because of a provision of SB 1222, post-conviction DNA-testing legislation passed in 2011.
"I am pleased that the Attorney General has taken this step to ensure that the evidence in the Skinner case is finally tested," said Ellis. "While I believe it is long overdue, this order -- and the ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals -- puts Texas on the right path. Now we will have certainty in the Skinner case because we will have analyzed all the evidence. There should be no lingering questions in capital cases."
Prior to the passage of SB 122, post-conviction DNA testing was often not performed if the issue was not originally raised at trial. Under that statute, post-conviction DNA tests could be granted only if testing wasn't available at trial, if testing was not technologically capable of proving guilt or innocence, or was not tested through no fault of the convicted person and, should therefore, now be tested in the interests of justice. If the evidence was previously tested and can be subjected to newer testing techniques that could result in a more accurate result, then it can be ordered to be tested again.
Recent court decisions, and an exoneration in Houston, have demonstrated flaws in Texas' previous DNA law; SB 122 fixed those gaps. The law now requires post-conviction DNA testing would be granted if:
- the biological evidence was not previously tested; or
- the biological evidence was previously tested, but can be subjected to newer testing techniques that provide a reasonable likelihood that the results will be more accurate and probative than the previous test results.
In addition, the law now requires courts to order any unidentified DNA profile discovered during post-conviction DNA testing to be compared with the DNA profiles in the FBI's CODIS DNA and the DNA database maintained by the Department of Public Safety. Such a comparison could be used to identify the actual perpetrator and exonerate the convicted.
Hank Skinner Supreme Court Case
On October 13, 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Hank Skinner, who was convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons, Randy Busby and Elwin Caler in the home they shared in the small Texas Panhandle town of Pampa.
The Texas Tribune described the case as follows:
Skinner, 48, has always denied committing the murders and says he loved Busby and her boys. ... Since 2000, Skinner has asked the state to release other evidence for DNA testing, including a rape kit, biological material from Twila's fingernails, sweat from a man's jacket resembling one that Donnell often wore, a bloody towel and knives. Those items weren't tested at his original trial because his attorney at the time worried the results might be incriminating, but Texas courts have repeatedly denied Skinner's requests for testing in the years since, saying that he had his chance in 1995 and contending that more tests wouldn't prove that he wasn't the murderer.
On March 7, 2011, the US Supreme Court decided 6-to-3 that Hank Skinner can seek DNA testing under the federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983.
SB 122 makes it possible for death row inmates like Skinner to have access to DNA testing to determine if they were innocent before they were executed.
"Under our past DNA testing statute, innocence was often being left to chance," Ellis said. "These new tests could exonerate Mr. Skinner, or they could make absolutely certain he is guilty. We've had enough problems in our criminal justice system to got make we got the extra mile so that we are absolutely certain we've got the right guy."