Updated Monday, Nov 7, 4:55pm
Among the items found next to the body of Twila Busby in 1993 was a windbreaker, spattered with blood, stained with sweat, and with two human hairs attached. Busby had been raped and bludgeoned to death in the home she shared with her boyfriend and her two grown sons, who were also killed, in the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa. Also found in the house were two knives, one of which was a likely murder weapon, and a bloody towel.
With so much physical evidence surrounding the deaths of Busby and her sons, the potential for DNA leading conclusively to the killer was enormous. But eighteen years later, none of the items has ever been tested. Neither were fingernail scrapings taken from Busby, nor swabs obtained from her rape kit.
Texas authorities long ago decided they knew who committed the crime: Busby’s boyfriend, Hank Skinner, the only other person known to be in the home that night, and who survived the brutal attack. Skinner was convicted of the murders in 1995 and sentenced to die. Last year, he came within less than an hour of execution before the US Supreme Court intervened. Now 49, he has consistently and vehemently denied any role in the grisly killings—and, he maintains, the bloody pile of evidence found at the scene should prove his innocence. Nevertheless, unless the state’s highest criminal court or Governor Rick Perry put a stop to it (or unless the US Supreme Court intervenes), Skinner may be executed on November 9, without the state ever knowing for sure if it is punishing the right man.
Texas was not always so reluctant to do DNA testing. According to his 30-year-old daughter, Natalie, the state began testing on hairs found at the scene years ago—including of one found clutched in Busby’s hand. The first tests came back inconclusive, and the state pushed forward. But when the hair was found not to match Skinner—results suggested it belonged to a maternal relation of Busby’s—the state ceased all testing. That was in 2000. Since then, no additional testing of any of the remaining evidence has taken place. “As soon as that result came back, they shut it down and have refused any more testing,” says Natalie Skinner.
In 1999, the Innocence Project at Northwestern University took up Skinner’s case, uncovering additional complicating evidence, including statements from a key witness who recanted statements implicating Skinner, as well as a potential alternative suspect, an uncle who had reportedly stalked—and some say sexually assaulted—Busby in the past. That man, Robert Donnell, died in 1997.
A Texas law passed in 2001 provides for post-conviction DNA testing in cases where untested evidence remains—a provision that, in a state with forty-four DNA exonerations to date, 85 percent of Texans support. The state’s refusal to test the evidence in the Skinner case is considered unacceptable, not just by his supporters but by current and former Texas lawmakers and law enforcement officials.