“River of Fire”: In New Memoir, Sister Helen Prejean Reflects on Decades of Fighting Executions

The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to resume the death penalty after a more than 15-year moratorium. This week Attorney General William Barr proposed fast-tracking executions in mass murder cases, and last month ordered the execution of five death row prisoners beginning in December. The federal government has executed just three people since 1963 — the last being in 2003. The death penalty is widely condemned by national governments, international bodies and human rights groups across the world. Experts say capital punishment does not help deter homicides and that errors and racism in the criminal justice system extend to those sentenced to death. We speak with Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death-penalty activist who began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. …

Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner insists on innocence as he weathers legal downturn in his case

Henry "Hank" Skinner: "My life is
on the line for a crime I didn't do."
LIVINGSTON - Every morning, convicted triple killer Henry Skinner awakes about 4 a.m. as breakfast is served at Texas' death row, deep within the concertina wire-girded Polunksy Unit 10 miles west of this East Texas hamlet. Around him are the furnishings of his 6-by-10-foot steel and concrete cell - a sink, toilet and bunk. For 22 hours a day, this austere place is Skinner's home.

It is here that Skinner, a onetime Pampa paralegal sentenced to die for one of the bloodiest killings in recent Texas Panhandle history, awaits his fate.

"My life is on the line for a crime I didn't do," Skinner, 52, said this week. "As far as the state is concerned, I'm expendable trash."

Skinner's case garnered international attention as he battled for more than a decade to obtain DNA testing of vaginal swabs, a bloody knife and dozens of other pieces of previously unexamined crime scene evidence. Twice Skinner's imminent execution was postponed to allow his lawyers to argue for the testing, which finally began in 2012.

Now, with mid-July's ruling by Pampa state District Judge Steven Emmert that the test results probably would not have altered the Skinner jury's guilty verdict, the killer's life again hangs in the balance.

Skinner was convicted of the 1993 New Year's Eve murders of his live-in lover, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons, Randy Busby and Elwin "Scooter" Caler. Twila Busby was strangled and bludgeoned with an ax handle; the men, stabbed.

Skinner repeated assertions that the killer was Twila Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell, "a mean drunk," who had sexually accosted her during a New Year's Eve party at a nearby residence. Six weeks before the killings, Skinner and Busby's sons arrived at the family home to find Donnell assaulting his niece, he said.

Suspicion first was cast on Donnell by Northwestern University journalism students who traveled to Texas in 2000 to investigate leads in the case. They encountered a witness who had seen the man cleaning his pickup with uncharacteristic fervor just days after the killings.

Donnell later was killed in an auto accident.

Skinner's legal team believes a blood-spattered windbreaker found at the crime scene may have belonged to Donnell. The jacket was lost while in the custody of Gray County authorities, and was not available for DNA testing.

None of Skinner's explanations gained traction with jurors or later appellate court judges.

Source: Houston Chroncile, Allan Turner, July 27, 2014

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