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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Another reason to be glad Rhode Island doesn't have the death penalty


The Allan B. Polunsky Unit, where Hank Skinner currently
sits on death row. He is scheduled to die on November 9
despite the fact that crucial evidence in his case has never
undergone DNA testing.
With all the sophisticated DNA technology available to today's forensic scientists, you'd think in a murder trial, especially one in which someone stands to be executed for the crime, that any and all biological evidence obtained from the crime scene would be tested, wouldn't you?

Well, in Texas, you'd be wrong.

By Linda Felaco


On November 9, Henry "Hank" Skinner is scheduled to be executed for the 1993 murders of his girlfriend Twila Busby and her two adult sons. Yet in all the years he has spent on Texas's death row, crucial DNA tests have never been performed on much of the crime-scene evidence. Even worse, in 2000, after a hair found in Twila Busby's hand was discovered to belong to neither her nor Skinner, the state of Texas stopped testing on any of the remaining samples and has refused to do any further testing to this day.

Nor are these the only problems with Skinner's conviction. His court-appointed attorney, Harold Lee Comer, was a former prosecutor who had left office after pleading guilty to siphoning off seized assets in a drug case. The judge in Skinner's trial, a friend of Comer's, paid Comer a higher-than-usual fee—roughly equal to what Comer owed for his own misdeeds—to represent Skinner despite the fact that Comer had prosecuted Skinner in not one but two previous trials. And when the prosecution raised the issue of the two previous convictions in Skinner's sentencing, Comer didn't even object.

Skinner had already faced execution in March of 2010, when Texas Governor Rick Perry refused to grant him a stay so the evidence could be tested, even after an Arizona lab offered to perform the tests for free. Skinner was 47 minutes away from execution when the Supreme Court granted him a stay.

Last year, the Supreme Court stopped Rick Perry from executing
Hank Skinner without DNA testing being performed. That testing
still has not been done, and yet Skinner is scheduled to die on
November 9. What higher authority can Skinner appeal
to now? (photo by iowapolitics.com)
And here we are, 19 months later, just over 2 weeks from executing Skinner, and we still don't know whose DNA is on the murder weapon, or in the rape kit taken from Busby's body, or on the blood-stained windbreaker that was left at the scene. Witnesses say the windbreaker matched one often worn by an uncle of Busby's who appears to have followed her home from a party the night of her death and who friends say had raped her in the recent past.

Again, why would the state of Texas not perform the tests? If Skinner is in fact guilty, the tests will only prove it. If he's innocent, as he's claimed all along, why would the state want to execute an innocent man? Even if you assume anyone put on trial must be guilty of something, whether or not it's the crime they're being charged with, executing the wrong person means the guilty party is still at large. That fact alone should give even those who aren't swayed by abstract principles pause.

Cases like Skinner's and Troy Davis's to me make it abundantly clear that the death penalty as practiced in this country is not about "justice" or providing "closure" to the families of victims or any of the comforting platitudes spouted by its apologists and is really about protecting the records of prosecutors and keeping verdicts from being overturned even if it means executing innocent people.

As Radley Balko writes in The Agitator:
It's one thing to consider all of the evidence, find it unconvincing, and then proceed with an execution despite strong disagreement from the suspect's supporters. It's a whole other level of moral culpability to deliberately remain ignorant about evidence that could definitively establish guilt or innocence.

I have no idea if Hank Skinner is guilty. Neither does the state of Texas. The difference is that I and anyone with a lick of conscience would prefer we find out before the man is put to death.
Seems that Texas officials would just rather not know.

Which brings me once again to Jason Pleau. Yes, Jason Pleau is a murderer, a confessed murderer. But the only reason he's facing the death penalty is because he committed the crime on the property of a bank. Now, last time I checked, banks were privately owned and we hadn't nationalized them, but federal prosecutors claim jurisdiction in the case because the bank's deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. So does that mean if you kill someone in their home and their mortgage is insured by Fannie or Freddie, it's a federal crime? I don't see the logic. No, I think what it really comes down to is that our government protects money over people. And that's just as wrong as can be.