More appeals for condemned triple killer
In Houston, a federal appeals court is allowing a death row inmate to
appeal his conviction for killing a mother and her 2 children in the Texas
Panhandle more than 14 years ago.
Henry Watkins Skinner, 46, has won approval from the 5th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals to pursue arguments that a police blood spatter report
should have been used by his lawyers at his capital murder trial to
bolster his defense.
Skinner was convicted of fatally bludgeoning his girlfriend, Twila Jean
Busby, 40, with an ax handle, then fatally stabbing her 2 mentally
impaired sons, Elwin Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20, at their Pampa home
on New Year's Eve in 1993.
The New Orleans-based court, in granting what's known as a certificate of
appealability, also agreed Skinner's trial lawyers should have called a
woman as a defense witness to support his contention that another man was
responsible for the slayings.
"We express no view on how any claims should be be resolved," a
three-judge panel of the court said in its ruling posted late Wednesday.
Several other appeals claims were rejected, including one that sought
additional DNA testing.
At his 1995 trial, moved 300 miles southeast of Pampa to Fort Worth on a
change of venue, the defense acknowledged Skinner was present at the time
of the killings but said he was passed out on the couch from a combination
of alcohol and codeine.
In his appeal, Skinner said the blood spatter report suggests Caler was in
the immediate vicinity of his mother at the time of her assault, meaning
the murderer would have had to "fend off two live victims at the same
time," according to court documents. Skinner insisted he was too
incapacitated to commit the slayings.
The appeals court said while the relevance of the blood spatter report
"requires considerable speculation" to lead to a reasonable probability of
an acquittal, "jurists of reason might disagree about the impact of the
blood spatter report."
The court also said a woman's testimony at a federal court hearing
"offered strong circumstantial evidence to corroborate the defense theory"
that the neighbor was the murderer. The woman did not testify at Skinner's
"Reasonable jurists could debate whether a reasonable attorney would have
investigated further," the appeals court said.
The case for years bounced between state and federal courts amid arguments
over the proper venue for appeals. In 2000, it came under scrutiny because
of a lack of forensic testing despite a wealth of evidence and questions
about the behavior of Skinner's trial attorney, Harold Comer, who left his
post as Gray County district attorney after improperly borrowing $10,000
from a drug seizure fund.
Comer earlier prosecuted Skinner for car theft and assault. As a defense
attorney, Comer couldn't object when prosecutors used those convictions as
proof Skinner would be a future danger to society, one of the questions
jurors must resolve when deciding on a death sentence.
Prison records show Skinner, who worked as a paralegal, received a 5-year
term for car theft in 1988 in Gray County, was paroled a year and a half
later to Harris County, but was returned to prison 6 months later for
violating his parole. He was paroled again in late 1989 and discharged in
May 1993, 7 months before the triple slaying.
He does not have an execution date.
(source: Associated Press)