Thursday, March 18, 2010

What's Wrong With Being Right?

by Katherine Scardino

Hank Skinner is about to die. He is a convicted capital murderer with an execution date of March 24, 2010. However, there's a problem. Hank Skinner has continuously said that he is an innocent man. We don't know that he's an innocent man. But there's one way to determine whether he's telling the truth. For fifteen years, Hank Skinner has asked for a DNA analysis of the evidence in his murder trial. He was convicted of bludgeoning to death his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and stabbing to death her two mentally impaired sons, Randy Busby and Elwin Caler. The murders occurred on December 31, 1993. Skinner was convicted of the murders on March 18, 1994, and sentenced to death on March 23, 1995.

Skinner has filed numerous appeals. This article isn't about whether Hank Skinner is guilty or innocent. It's about whether his request for DNA testing should be granted. Regardless of the facts of any case, if there's a test that would resolve the issues, wouldn't most people say: Go ahead and do it? Let’s settle this issue once and for all. If Hank Skinner’s DNA is linked to evidence used to prove his guilt, then by all means, let’s show it. If Hank Skinner’s DNA isn't on that evidence, then let’s show that also. Who would object to that? Well, let’s answer that. Maybe the prosecutor, who wouldn't want it proven that he got the whole case wrong? The judge, who wouldn't want to be reversed -- and revealed as a total idiot whose every ruling and the theory of the case presented by the State were totally and provably wrong. Just wrong. No one wants to be proven wrong.

So what's the issue? It's that Hank Skinner has asked for a DNA analysis of the untested evidence ever since his 1994 trial, and has been refused every step of the way. My question is this: If a simple DNA analysis would prove this man innocent, or even throw some doubt on his guilt, what in holy hell is wrong with doing that?

I'm not saying Hank Skinner is innocent. I have no idea about whether he is actually innocent or guilty as sin. My question is simply -- if this man’s culpability can be shown by a simple test, why in the world would the State be opposed to it? He is about to die, for God’s sake. What would they be afraid of? Are we so into this idea of finality that we forget what is really fair? The State argues that finality is the goal, and the courts have ruled. But DNA testing is in the hands of the State. They could have answered this question years ago.

Hank Skinner has been accused and convicted of horrible crimes. Again, I reiterate, I have no knowledge whether Skinner is guilty or innocent. I just know that when a person proclaims his innocence, over and over to every appellate court possible, and the State refuses to do the simple DNA testing that would resolve several layers of appellate review, I get suspicious. Why the opposition? The DNA would show one way or the other, right?

It reminds me of the Timothy Cole case. Timothy Cole was convicted of the 1985 rape of a Texas Tech student and  sentenced to 25 years in prison. His conviction was based in part on the victim’s identification of him as her attacker, in part on what a judge later called faulty police work and a questionable suspect lineup. The victim later fought to help clear Cole’s name. Cole died in prison in 1999, at age 39, after an asthma attack sent him into cardiac arrest. Cole was cleared by DNA in 2009, posthumously exonerating him, after repeated confessions by another man in 2008.

When Gov. Rick Perry pardoned Timothy Cole, it ended the Cole family’s long battle to clear Timothy’s name. But it did something else. It reminded all of us that Timothy Cole was wrongfully convicted of rape two decades ago, and DNA would have proved his innocence -- if someone had had the cajones to stand up and say we should give this man have the test he was asking for. DNA would have disposed of this case years ago. Why did we take so long? As I see it, there is only one answer. Pride. The prosecutor. The judge. The defense lawyer. What was the delay? If there is an iota of reason why a defendant should have DNA testing of any piece of evidence, why in the world would anyone object?

But what about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham? He was executed in 2004 for arson in a fire that killed his children. At his trial, forensic experts for the State said the fire was set intentionally. But later, other experts in forensic evidence involving arson found the forensic science used in the case was invalid and that the analysts should have known that it was faulty at the time of their testimony. Simply put, Texas executed an innocent man.

About four years ago, the Texas Innocence Project, of which I can proudly say that I am a board member, asked the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the Willingham case and similar cases. The conclusion of the Texas Innocence Project is that there are likely other cases in Texas like those of Timothy Cole, Cameron Todd Willingham, and maybe Hank Skinner. Science proved Timothy Cole’s innocence 10 years too late. It threw Cameron Todd Willingham’s case into doubt several years too late. And it will soon be too late for science to prove whether Hank Skinner is an innocent man.

If an inmate says “I am innocent and I can prove it,” what's wrong with letting him prove or disprove his innocence with DNA testing? It seems silly to even try to argue that denying this testing serves justice in some way. When Gov. Rick Perry pardoned Timothy Cole this year, it was good for Cole's his family but embarrassing for the State of Texas. We had a governor who refused for a very long time to address this issue. It took years. Nor should Perry granted Cole a pardon. Cole should have been exonerated years ago; the television cameras would have been at the front door of the prison as he walked out, a free man.

The State of Texas needs to do some re-thinking, and our citizens should remember this at the voting booth.


Anonymous said...

What this person wants is not that a "simple test" be done, but that the citizens pay for whatever tests he or his attorneys think MIGHT be able to be done, so as to restart the appellate clock. As long as more possible items remain, or newer or possibly better "tests" can be invented, the cycle never ends. It is far more about delay than innocence. People object because of the fraud being perpetrated in the name of "innocence." I notice the name Roger Keith Coleman isn't in your article. Or Timothy Hennis. And Willingham certainly hasn't been cleared, either. Fact is, every accused person (including those who later plead guilty) "proclaims their innocence" over and over or at least once. So why would a normal person be "suspicious" just because this particular braying is done at noisier volume?

Anonymous said...

It's easy for YOU to say it's for delay in the process instead of trying to prove innocence. If you had any knowledge of the judicial system and what it takes to defend people of capital crimes you might see things differently. There is, quite obviously, more evidence involved than just a claim to innocence that drives defense attorneys to pursue testing that can PROVE guilt/innocence. You're an outsider looking in who probably thinks you or your family would NEVER be in this situation. Open your mind to the reality that the system fails people all the time ... it may one day fail you too.

If, as a country, we put people to death for committing crimes then we should take all steps necessary to make sure that those being put to death are in fact guilty as charged. People want to complain about the cost to taxpayers for DNA testing ... what about the cost of putting people to death? And, sometimes, innocent people at that.

BeachBum81 said...

Do you really think defense lawyers beg for DNA testing to PROVE guilt/innocence based on an outcry of innocence by the defendant? I guess the idea that there is other evidence supporting a theory of innocence just never crossed your mind.

Its easy for you to say the process is for delay because you're an outsider. Im sure you believe that you and your family would never be in this type of situation or that the judicial system would never fail you. But, the reality is that our system fails people all the time.

As a country, if we want to put people do death for their crimes, we have a moral obligation to make sure their guilt is proven. People want to complain about the cost of DNA testing ... but what about the cost of the death penalty itself?

Beach Bum81 said...

sorry for the repetitive comment. didn't realize I was signed in under the wrong name initially.

Anonymous said...

Really anon1 - we are talking about taking innocent lives here. That is called murder. When we as a country like said above, use death as a punishment, we better damn well know with 100% certainty that the person we kill is guilty.

Anonymous said...

100% certainty? Are you sure you've read the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt"? There will never be 100% certainty about ANYthing. No law, no court anywhere has EVER required that. By such "logic" no verdict or punishment could ever be valid. Why stop with just capital punishment? You're 100% wrong.

Rose said...

100 % certainty can come from DNA testing.

Good article, nicely said.

Anita Porterfield said...

This draconian measure is extraordinarily disturbing to me. Can we, as a society, actually murder another human being without knowing for sure that the so-called "offender" is guilty of the crime that he will die for? I do not believe that capital punishment accomplishes anything positive. And I can't believe that the executioner will actually be able to look him/herself in the mirror, especially in this case. DNA is no longer a time-consuming, expensive test. There is no reason not to test Hank Skinner!

Soobs said...

While I rarely agree with Katherine about anything, on THIS issue, I agree. If DNA testing is available, yet not used, there is NO harm in testing. And in fact, it should be required, before a death sentence is carried out.

Leah said...

Great write up KS.

It is amazing that the state couldn't care less whether the man is innocent or not. People like this prosedutor shouldn't be prosecutors for this very reason.

California Girl said...

DNA testing should be used whenever possible. Clearing someone has to be cheaper than incarcerating them or executing them.

Anonymous said...

The lovely thing is, the testing was done and none of it excluded Skinner as a contributor to the mixed profiles. In other words, it didn't point the finger at the uncle instead; Skinner did it.

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