by David Protess, President, Chicago Innocence Project
The saga of Hank Skinner’s fight for DNA testing, and for his life, reads like a Russian novel. Yesterday’s chapter concluded with a stay of execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Texas high court agreed to decide whether a new state DNA law applies to Skinner’s case — or if he should be executed without the tests.
The stay is temporary. This war is far from over.
So how did we get to this point? Why has it taken more than a decade with still no outcome in sight?
The public controversy started, of all places, on Nancy Grace in June of 2000, and its resolution has been thwarted by four Texas Republican District Attorneys.
Sporting a white Stetson and cowboy boots, Texas D.A. John Mann gazed into a TV camera and firmly declared that Hank Skinner should die for the murders of three people in the Panhandle town where Mann was the law.
Nine hundred miles away, in the Chicago studios of Court TV, I challenged Mann’s version of the evidence. While I didn’t know whether Skinner was innocent or guilty, he deserved DNA tests that could determine the truth, I contended.
Until that point, host Nancy Grace, an ex-prosecutor and victim’s rights advocate, had sided with Mann. Now Grace wanted to know why he had not tested all the crime scene evidence.
Mann tried to change the subject.
“Answer her question,” I insisted. After Mann continued to scramble, I got louder: “You’re not answering her question!”
Grace jumped in, calling DNA testing “reasonable.” When I offered to pay for the tests “if Texas is too cheap to do them,” she laughingly replied: “Be careful. He might just take you up on it.”
Back in my office on that warm summer day in 2000, I found an email from Mann. It read, in part: “I’m testing everything on my dime… just to prove you and Nancy Grace wrong.”
Fine with me. I didn’t care about the reason. After my journalism students had poked gaping holes in Mann’s case against Skinner — the recantation of his star witness and compelling evidence against an alternative suspect — I wanted to learn the truth.
Years later, I discovered that Mann had not, in fact, tested all the evidence, as he had promised. As I reported yesterday, he instead had cherry picked the evidence he thought would seal Skinner’s fate and sent it to a lab with close ties to law enforcement. Surprisingly, the results only further challenged Skinner’s guilt.
Enter Richard “Rick” Roach, a 50-year-old bombastic lawyer from Pampa, the Gray Co. seat. Roach, a Republican, narrowly defeated Mann, a fellow Republican, and soon after taking office discovered the troubling lab reports in his Inbox. Still believing Skinner guilty, but questioning whether he had the authority to order more tests to be certain, Roach declared a moratorium on testing without a court order.
When no court order was forthcoming, however, Roach began to have doubts — about the way the Skinner case had been handled, and more generally about capital punishment, according to a former law enforcement official. Indeed, Roach declined to seek the death penalty in two death-eligible cases. He also graciously showed Skinner’s lawyers the crime scene items, which had been preserved in a musty evidence locker outside of town.
But Roach was distracted by bigger problems than the Skinner case. While he zealously prosecuted drug crimes in the Panhandle, where homemade pharmaceuticals had become more plentiful than Texas crude, the D.A. had developed a habit of his own. Injecting methamphetamine. Sometimes in the D.A.’s office. Once right in front of his secretary — who, unfortunately for Roach, doubled as an informant for the FBI.
In 2005, as Roach was picking a jury, he was led away in handcuffs by federal agents. He was prosecuted for firearms and drug possession, convicted, and is presently serving an 18-year sentence.
Roach was replaced by his top aide, Lynn Switzer, who was appointed D.A. by Gov. Rick Perry and later elected to the office she holds today. Switzer is best known for losing a death penalty case that virtually bankrupted Gray Co. — and for a U.S. Supreme Court decision that bears her name: Skinner v. Switzer.
Earlier this year, the Court ruled that Henry Watkins Skinner was entitled to sue District Attorney Switzer to get access to the DNA evidence in his case. That lawsuit is pending before a federal magistrate in Amarillo, put on hold until the Texas courts decide whether to order the tests under the state’s new DNA law. It’s a law the Texas D.A.s do not want to enforce.
Let’s recap. Texas attempts to kill Skinner without DNA testing that could prove his innocence or guilt. A TV talk show host shames the D.A. into partially testing the evidence. He doesn’t like the results and halts further testing. The D.A. is ousted by a drug-addicted prosecutor who waits for court-ordered tests, but is first busted by the feds. The highest court in the land hands a defeat to the addict’s protege, who still presses for Skinner’s execution — and almost succeeds.
The cast of characters would not be complete without mentioning Harold Comer, the Republican D.A. who preceded Mann, Roach and Switzer. D.A. Comer was run out of office and temporarily lost his law license for mishandling seized drug assets.
Comer’s first lucrative gig as a reinvented defense lawyer: representing an indigent Hank Skinner in the trial of his life. Comer was appointed Skinner’s lawyer, at taxpayer’s expense, by the judge who would dispatch Skinner to death row.
It was Comer who decided not to have the crime scene evidence fully tested before Skinner’s trial.
If the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rules against Hank Skinner, and he is executed, there will be no shortage of blame to go around. But it shouldn’t be directed solely at the quartet of Republican D.A.s who thwarted justice. The real culprit is Texas’ machinery of death.