Death row inmate Hank Skinner insists on more DNA tests in his case

The wife of Hank Skinner, a man awaiting execution on death row in the US for a murder he says he did not commit, is leading a campaign to give him the chance to prove his innocence.

However, as time passes Skinner is beginning to see death as more of a relief than a form of punishment.

Thirteen people have been executed so far this year by the state of Texas. Hank Skinner narrowly avoided becoming the fourteenth. He was granted a stay of execution minutes before he was due to be put to death for murdering his girlfriend and her two sons, a crime he says he can prove he did not commit.

“They won’t give me access to the evidence I need to prove my innocence, and meanwhile they are trying to kill me. All the evidence that we’re asking them to test, by the way, is evidence that they have identified as being important in the case,” Skinner says.

The Skinner case has enraged abolitionist campaigners all over the world, including in France. Sandrine Ageorges Skinner first started writing to Hank in 1996, and was so moved by his case that she married him, and is intent on proving his innocence.

“At this point, 90% of the evidence that has been selected from the crime scene is still untested to this day,” Sandrine said. “That includes the murder weapons, rape kits, nail clippings from the victim, some bloodstains, and a male jacket found next to the victim that is not Hank’s size at all. It has sweat, hair, blood on it. You know, it is just stupendous that justice would go to such an extent to kill him, without wanting to find out the truth.”

Since June 2008, Sandrine Ageorges Skinner has been banned by the warden of her husband’s prison from visiting him, and for much of that time she was also forbidden from writing to him. Nevertheless, she has continued her campaign from Paris to have what many believe is conclusive DNA evidence tested and prevent a man from going to his death without having had a final chance to prove his innocence.

Every year, half of all US executions are performed in Texas, despite being only one of 36 states that still enforce death sentences. Critics in Europe blame the state’s governor, Rick Perry, during whose ten-year term more than 200 people have been executed.

“I think that the Texas politician doesn't want to seem too fair, too easy. And there is a mentality in Texas, kind of a 'cowboy' mentality, where you have to be tough with criminality. Even if there is a possibility of innocence of one man, they don't care,” explained Raphael Chenuil-Hazan, director of the Ensemble Contre La Peine De Mort association.

Even if Skinner’s DNA tests are allowed to go ahead, and prove that he had no link to the crime, that will not mean his life has been saved. He will still have to prove that his original trial was unfair. Only then will his death sentence be lifted. Until then, says his wife, Skinner will be stuck in limbo, which can almost be as bad as a death sentence.

“Most of them see death as their only way out. And honestly, he was somewhat disappointed when he got a stay. He is not that confident that he is going to get relief at the end of this, and he sees this extended time as more torture, because life on death row is torture. The isolation is terrible, the sensory deprivation drives people insane,” says Sandrine.

Henry Watkins “Hank” Skinner was convicted of murdering his live-in partner Twila Busby and her two sons at their house in Pampa, Texas, on December 31 in 1993. He was sentenced to death for the killings in 1995.

Skinner insists he was drunk and asleep on a couch in the same room where his girlfriend was bludgeoned to death. He was in a stupor when he woke up to find Busby murdered and maintains that her uncle was the killer, not him.

In the last 35 years, more than 130 innocents have been released from death row in the US. However, campaigners say it is safe to assume that innocent people have been executed, and it is impossible to say just how many.