Texas Inmate Facing Execution Denied DNA Testing (Update: Execution Stayed Until Mar. 24)

Henry Skinner is scheduled (update below) for execution in Texas on February 24 despite the lack of DNA testing of critical evidence from the crime scene that could lead to his exoneration. Skinner has always maintained his innocence of the 1993 murder of his girlfriend and her two grown sons in Tampa, Texas. At his trial, the prosecution presented the results of selective DNA testing on some of the crime evidence that tended to prove Skinner’s presence at the scene, which was his place of residence, a fact he has never disputed. But the state has repeatedly refused his request to test other evidence, including material found on the victim, that could point to another suspect. In addition, an investigation by journalism students from Northwestern University in 1999 and 2000 revealed that a key witness from the trial had recanted her testimony linking Skinner to the crime. Texas has already executed a number of individuals who may have been innocent, leaving a cloud of doubt on the fairness of the criminal justice system. By conducting relatively routine DNA tests before his execution, the doubts surrounding Skinner’s case could be resolved one way or the other. (See also Feb. 10 article by federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin (retired)).

Skinner’s attorneys have filed motions for a stay of execution to allow for the DNA testing and are petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the effectiveness of his trial counsel and other issues in the case.

(See B. Grissom, “Case Open: The Investigation,” Texas Tribune, Jan. 29, 2010; Medill School of Journalism Innocence Project regarding Skinner; Letter of Prof. David Protess, Director Medill Innocence Project, to Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Jan. 22, 2010) Picture by Caleb Bryant Miller, Texas Tribune. See also Innocence.

Update: The execution warrant for Feb. 24 was withdrawn by a Texas court because of a clerical error. A new execution date of Mar. 24 was set. A statement from Skinner’s attorneys regarding this development follows:

 "Today, February 17, we received notice for the first time that the judge of the convicting court yesterday withdrew Mr. Skinner’s previously scheduled February 24 execution date, apparently upholding our challenge to the previously issued warrant of execution as void under Texas law. We are dismayed that the court chose, in the same order, to re- schedule Mr. Skinner’s execution for March 24. This unseemly haste to execute Mr. Skinner ignores the growing public concern and outcry over the unanswered questions about Mr. Skinner’s guilt. Now, more than ever, DNA testing is necessary to resolve those doubts. Setting a March 24 execution date also means that Mr. Skinner’s pending lawsuit against the Gray County District Attorney in the United States Supreme Court, seeking the much-needed DNA testing, must now be resolved under needless and entirely artificial time pressures. Given that the District Attorney stands to benefit directly from that undue haste, it is especially disappointing that the court chose to press forward with Mr. Skinner’s execution on March 24. In addition, there is a very serious legal question whether the trial court even has the authority to set an execution date for someone, like Mr. Skinner, whose post-conviction challenges to his conviction and death sentence have never been heard by the Texas courts. We remain committed to obtaining the DNA testing our client says will prove his innocence, and will take every available legal step to that end." 

(STATEMENT OF THE LEGAL DEFENSE TEAM FOR HANK SKINNER REGARDING RE-
SCHEDULING OF MR. SKINNER’S EXECUTION, Feb. 17, 2010, received by email).