There’s an excellent article from The Guardian about the Hank Skinner piece, and I’ve posted the whole thing below:
$550. That’s how much it costs to test a murder weapon for DNA inTexas. And if Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner is to be believed, $550 would prove his innocence. But the state of Texas has refused to do it – twice – even though Skinner has been asking nicely for well over a decade from his 12ft-by-6ft cell.
Skinner was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons, Randy and Elwin, at a trial in 1995. But from the beginning, Skinner has maintained his innocence, arguing that he was too inebriated from a cocktail of vodka and codeine to have been capable of the crimes. The evidence against him is largely circumstantial and his lawyers argue that Busby’s uncle (since deceased) was the real perpetrator.
The Texas court of criminal appeals rejected Skinner’s application for DNA testing to be performed on blood taken from the murder scene, saying it prohibits post-conviction testing unless – and this is key – “a reasonable probability exists that DNA tests would prove the prisoner’s innocence.”
In other words, Skinner needs to basically prove he is innocent before he can have the murder weapon tested, which he says will prove he’s innocent. That makes sense, then.
It’s true that the DNA evidence was available at the time of his original trial, but a full year before that, Skinner wrote to his attorney asking for it to be tested. His attorney decided against it, fearing that his client’s DNA was probably on some of the items simply because he had lived in Busby’s home, and that the jurors would place too much weight on that evidence.
In March 2010, Skinner was taken to the death chamber 40 miles away from Livingston in Huntsville, but less than an hour before the execution was due to take place, the US supreme court granted a stay while it considered whether to allow Skinner to request DNA tests. A year on, it agreed he could sue the district attorney to gain access to the evidence. Meanwhile, a new execution date has been set for 9 November.
The fact that the state seems to be trying every trick in the book to stop Skinner – a man who is set to die in a week – from making one last attempt to prove his innocence leaves more than a bad taste. If the state is so sure he’s guilty and the death sentence safe, what are they afraid of? Test the murder weapon, then grease the wheels of the death machine once more.
At the MSNBC/Politico presidential debate in September, Texas Governor Rick Perry was asked whether he struggled to sleep at nightthinking one of the (then) 234 death row inmates executed during his tenure (more than under any other modern governor) could have been innocent. “No, sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all,” he said to loud whistles, whoops and applause from the audience. “The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, very clear process in place, which when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellant process – they go up to the supreme court of the US if that’s required.”
Try telling Michael Morton, freed from death row in Texas last month after DNA testing revealed he was innocent of his wife’s murder, that the system is “thoughtful”, “clear” and “fair”.
Or Michael Toney, who was released in September 2009 – after spending 10 years on death row for a bombing that killed three people – when the state dropped all charges. Toney, who maintained his innocence throughout, was killed in a car accident a month after his release. I was one of a handful of people on his short-lived email list. Here’s what he wrote just before his death:
“I think a lot of my depression and loneliness comes from lack of conversation. I’m someone who needs input … without it, I’m a mess … I have nobody to share with.”
Because of Rick Perry‘s thoughtful, clear and fair justice system, Toney, an innocent man who spent a decade on death row, will never have anybody to share anything with.
And it’s too late for Cameron Willingham, executed in 2004 for starting a fire that killed his three children. After examining evidence from the trial, four national arson experts concluded that the original investigation was flawed and that it’s possible the fire was accidental. The key forensic evidence has been completely debunked.
Last week, more than a dozen current and former prosecutors and lawmakers sent a letter to Perry urging him to delay Skinner’s execution to allow for DNA testing. “We … share grave and growing concerns about the state’s stubborn refusal to date to test all the evidence in the Skinner case,” it read. One of the signatories was former Texas Governor Mark White. But Perry is stubborn when it comes to criminal justice, next year is election year, and he has his sights firmly on the White House.
He also thinks America is on his side when it comes to the death penalty. At the same debate in which he lauded Texas’s justice system, Perry claimed the “vast majority” of people were supportive of capital punishment. Actually, it’s far from “vast”: a Gallup poll just last month (pdf) showed 61% of Americans approved of using the death penalty – the lowest since 1972.
One of the reasons is the expense. It costs an estimated $2.3m per death penalty case in Texas (pdf), due to legal fees and the number of appeals – one of the reasons it’s finding less favour among fiscal conservatives these days.
I called Assured, a DNA- and drug-testing company based in Austin, and they would charge just $550 to extract the DNA from the murder weapon that killed Twila Busby. $550. That’s it. If Rick Perry has presided over an economic miracle here in Texas, as he keeps saying he has, what’s 550 bucks? If you insist on having the death penalty, it would be a crime, surely, to execute someone without being absolutely sure they did it.