Editorial: In a civilized society, not even the most vicious crimes justify a death sentence

It is soul-bruising to contemplate the torture that 10-year-old Anthony Avalos endured in his Lancaster home for more than a week before dying last year. Whippings with a looped cord and belt. Repeatedly held upside down then dropped on his head. Getting slammed into pieces of furniture and against the floor. Hot sauce poured on his face and mouth.
The road map of the abuse stretched from head to toe on his small malnourished body — bruises, abrasions, scabs and cuts visible on the outside. Traumatic brain injury and soft tissue damage on the inside. All allegedly perpetrated by his mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva.
RELATED | California: Prosecutors seeking death penalty in Anthony Avalos torture case
If ever a set of circumstances called for the death penalty, this would be it. Few were surprised when Los Angeles County prosecutors said Wednesday that if the couple is convicted of the torture-murder, the jury will be asked to recommend a death sentence.
Such ca…

Texas: Testimony ends in Hank Skinner's DNA hearing

Hank Skinner
PAMPA — A Texas Department of Public Safety expert testified Tuesday that genetic material found on a knife at the scene of a 1993 triple homicide was consistent with Hank Skinner’s DNA profile, but the death row inmate’s defense team maintains that another man killed the family.

Georgette Oden, an assistant attorney general, quizzed DPS expert Brent Hester about a battery of DNA testing results during an evidentiary hearing at the Gray County courthouse.

Testimony ended Tuesday in the two-day hearing, but attorneys for both sides are expected to submit further briefs to District Judge Steven Emmert after court transcripts are completed.

The hearing focused on whether it is “reasonably probable” that Skinner, now 51, would have been acquitted if all DNA evidence in the case had been presented at his 1995 trial, according to court records.

Skinner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die in the slayings of Twila Jean Busby, 40, and her sons — 22- year-old Elwin “Scooter” Caler and 20-year-old Randy Busby.

Skinner has claimed he was too intoxicated to have slain the Busbys because he drank vodka and took codeine on the night of the killings.

After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Skinner’s execution three times due to changing post-conviction law, prosecutors agreed to allow DNA testing, and both sides now have received the results.

Hester, a DPS analyst from the Lubbock crime lab, testified Tuesday that genetic material recovered from the blade of a knife found on the front porch of the victims’ home could be linked to Skinner. Forensic tests on the knife blade, he said, proved the presence of blood on the weapon, and the material found on the knife contained DNA traces from Skinner, Caler and Busby.

“We do not say it was that person’s DNA,” Hester said of how DPS interprets DNA results recovered from a crime scene. “They are not consistent solely with him, but they are consistent with him being a possible contributor.”

Hester also testified that some DNA recovered from the crime scene was contaminated with his DNA and that of a former court reporter who handled evidence in the case. The longtime forensic scientist also testified that some genetic material recovered from a carpet stain, door handles in the home and a door frame could be tied to Skinner.

Hester also said DNA from an unknown individual also was located in the carpet stain, which was in a bedroom where the two male victims were found. Hester said that genetic material could have been deposited when the carpet was originally laid and could have come from nearly anyone who visited the Busby home at 804 E. Campbell St. in Pampa.

Robert Owen, Skinner’s attorney, said after the hearing that testimony showed minute traces of DNA from an unknown person and Twila Busby’s blood had been found on a dish towel that had been left in a plastic bag at the crime scene.

Owen also said the prosecution has claimed that Skinner stabbed Randy Busby in the back while he lay on his bunk bed, but Owen said testimony presented during the hearing casts doubt on the state’s theory.

“If Mr. Skinner stabbed Randy Busby in the manner claimed by the state, Mr. Skinner’s blood should have been on the blanket of Randy’s bed. It was not. If Mr. Skinner’s hands were covered with the victims’ blood when he staggered out of the house, their blood should have been mixed with his on the doorknobs he touched. It was not,” Owen said in a statement.

Owen said a state expert’s testimony also indicated that three of four hairs found in Twila Busby’s hand — hairs the defense said contain DNA consistent with a maternal relative of the victims — were “visually dissimilar” to the victim’s own hair. That testimony, he said, supports the defense team’s conclusion that Robert Donnell, Twila Busby’s now-deceased uncle, killed the Pampa family.

“The state presented no compelling evidence that the hairs could have come from another maternal relative. In fact, Ms. Busby’s mother stated under oath before Mr. Skinner’s trial that she had not been inside the house in the preceding four months,” Owen said in a statement.

Owen also said he was disappointed that Emmert did not allow testimony from a key witness about a jacket found at the crime scene. The witness was prepared to testify the now-missing jacket belonged to Donnell.

“At the DNA hearing, Mr. Skinner sought to present testimony from a witness who can positively identify the jacket as Donnell’s, and to have his DNA expert explain how testing could have confirmed Donnell’s DNA on the jacket,” Owen said in a statement. “We respectfully disagree with this decision. In our view, this evidence is at the center of the case. It shows why a jury that heard all the evidence, including DNA results, would have harbored a reasonable doubt about Mr. Skinner’s guilt.”

Owen also noted that much of the DNA evidence gathered in the case was mishandled, contaminated or lost.

Owen indicated in his statement that “doubts about Hank Skinner’s guilt are far too great to allow his execution to proceed, particularly where the state’s utter failure to safeguard key pieces of evidence may make it impossible to resolve those questions conclusively.”

Source: Amarillo Globe-News, Feb. 4, 2014

DNA Hearing Brings Skinner Case Closer to Resolution

PAMPA — Two days of painstakingly detailed testimony about DNA analysis have brought the 20-year-old case against death row inmate Hank Skinner closer to resolution.

DNA analysts for Skinner and for state prosecutors from the Texas attorney general’s office spent Monday and Tuesday in the historic Gray County Courthouse explaining to state district Judge Steven Emmert the significance of more than 180 tests on about 40 items of evidence from a 1993 New Year’s Eve triple murder. Prosecutors argued that the tests only confirmed Skinner’s guilt, while lawyers for the 51-year-old defendant said the results raised enough questions about the identity of the perpetrator that a jury would not have condemned him to death.

Skinner was convicted in 1995 of strangling and bludgeoning to death his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and stabbing to death her two adult sons, Elwin Caler and Randy Busby. Skinner has long proclaimed his innocence, saying that he was nearly comatose from a mixture of vodka and codeine on the night of the crime and that he couldn’t have overpowered the victims. Since 2001, Skinner has sought DNA testing that he contends could bolster his theory that the killer was Busby’s maternal uncle, who has since died but had a history of violence.

“We don’t have to prove innocence,” said Skinner’s lawyer, Rob Owen, from the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University Law School. Instead, they must convince the court that had the DNA evidence tested in recent years been available at the 1995 trial, the jury would have had reasonable doubt about Skinner’s guilt. State prosecutors agreed to testing in 2012, and the evidence was analyzed in 2012 and 2013.

Much of the testimony about the DNA analysis in the case focused on the degradation and age of the evidence available. The state's expert, Brent Hester, a forensic scientist from the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Lubbock laboratory, said that more than half of the items tested either produced no results or produced results that couldn’t be interpreted.

“There’s a vast amount of DNA in this case that is either weak or degraded,” Hester said.

Of the tests that produced results, the majority, he explained, contained DNA that matched that of Skinner, the victims or others who had handled the evidence, like state officials and lawyers involved in the case.

Edward Marshall, chief of the AG’s criminal appeals division, said the state identified Skinner’s DNA at 19 new locations at the crime scene. His DNA was identified on a knife blade used in the crime, on doorknobs, in blood smears on the walls, on a cassette tape found in the home, on a dresser and on bloody tennis shoes.

“We significantly strengthened our case for Mr. Skinner’s guilt,” Marshall said.

Prosecutors also worked to dispel Skinner’s theory about Busby’s uncle, Robert Donnell.

“We demonstrated that there’s no evidence that Robert Donnell was ever at that crime scene,” Marshall said.

Prosecutors dismissed as “red herrings” test results indicating the presence of DNA from another person, someone on the maternal side of Busby’s family. The DNA in those results, Hester said, was badly degraded. The extraneous DNA, he said, could have a number of explanations.

“One of them is that somebody else came in and did this assault,” he said. “There are any number of other possibilities.”

Skinner’s lawyers contended that it only made sense for Skinner’s DNA to be found throughout the crime scene, since he lived at the home with the victims. For example, long before the crime, Skinner could have deposited his DNA on the knife used in the stabbing when making a sandwich.

“We don’t know the source of Henry Skinner’s DNA,” said Julie Heinig, assistant lab director and DNA technical leader at Ohio-based DNA Diagnostic Center.

Skinner's lawyers said the fact that DNA from Skinner’s blood at the crime scene — he had a gash on his hand, which he has said came from a shard of glass on the floor — was not mixed with blood from the victims also supported his claims of innocence. Had he brutally attacked them, their blood would have been found with his on the stains, they said.

And they argued that the presence of another person’s DNA on carpet and on a dishtowel found near the victims’ bodies at the crime scene was critical evidence that someone else could have been the killer.

The fact those DNA profiles were so weak could, in part, be due to the passage of time and exposure of the evidence to rodents and insects, a fact Owen blamed on state prosecutors who fought from 2001 to 2012 against Skinner’s request for testing in the case.

Another major error prosecutors made, Owen said, was losing a windbreaker that police found at the scene of the crime. The jacket resembled one Donnell often wore, but when DNA testing began in 2012, it had disappeared from the evidence file. Emmert would not allow testimony about the jacket because DNA testing was not conducted on it.

Owen said Skinner should not be punished for the state’s failure to properly preserve evidence.

“They should have to accept those consequences,” Owen said.

Emmert did not rule on the evidence immediately after the hearing but is expected to issue findings in a couple of months. Either Skinner or state prosecutors could appeal Emmert’s ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court.

Source: The Texas Tribune, Feb. 5, 2014

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