criminal justice flaws death penalty DNA testing forensic science Hank Skinner innocence

Judge Speaks Out Against Court Flaws

In recent years the flaws of both forensic science and the criminal justice system in Texas have come under fire. Retired Judge H. Lee Sarokin, writing for the Huffington Post, speaks out against the denying of additional DNA testing, citing Hank Skinner as a prime example of a flawed criminal justice system.

“Thwarting Justice by Denying DNA Testing”- Posted February 10, 2010:

It is disheartening to hear of prosecutors opposingDNA tests which may prove the innocence of persons facing the death penalty. The objections usually center on the cost or maintaining closure and peace of mind for the victim’s family. However, supporters of the defendant frequently offer to pay the cost, and one would think that the victim’s family would prefer to have the actual perpetrator arrested and convicted rather than have an innocent person executed. It may also be that prosecutors wish to have their convictions maintained and avoid the embarrassment of having prosecuted and caused the conviction of an innocent man, an understandable consideration but hardly one consistent with the pursuit of justice.

A perfect example is the case of Henry Skinner who is scheduled for execution Feb 24th in Texas. Skinner has consistently maintained his innocence of the murder of his girlfriend and her two grown sons. The state has repeatedly refused to allow him to test evidence found on the victim that could point to another suspect. As a result of an investigation by the Medill Innocence Project (a highly respected group of student journalists from Northwestern University), they concluded that there were no eyewitnesses to the crime, no confession, but rather persistent denials, no apparent motive, nothing in Mr. Skinner’s background to establish that he was capable of such a crime and most important, a viable alternative suspect with a motive and the means and opportunity to commit the crime. The state’s star witness admitted to the students that she had lied in her testimony about incriminating statements Mr. Skinner had made. There is substantial other evidence to put the conviction in doubt.

The case also has a unique wrinkle which renders it somewhat bizarre. The lawyer appointed to represent Mr. Skinner had been the District Attorney and the case was prosecuted by his successor. In addition to the alleged conflict, Mr. Skinner’s petition is replete with charges of the ineffective assistance of counsel, most of which have been rejected by the courts, including the failure to seek DNA testing. My own experience informs me that no judgment should be made regarding any of the court’s rulings without much more information.

So I do not write as an advocate for Mr. Skinner, but rather as an advocate for our system of justice. If there are means available which will finally determine Mr. Skinner’s guilt or innocence (and others like him), we should avail ourselves of them. Whatever the objections may be — they cannot outweigh the potential calamity of executing an innocent person.