Skinner attorneys: DNA points to uncle as the killer

By: Timothy P. Howsare
The Pampa News
Thursday, January 2, 2014

An advisory submitted to the 31st District Court in Pampa and the Texas Attorney General’s office by convicted murderer Hank Skinner’s attorneys points to Robert Donnell, Twila Busby’s deceased uncle, as the real killer in the triple homicide that occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1993.

In the advisory, submitted in late August, Skinner’s attorneys, Douglas Robinson and Robert Owen, cite results of a third round of DNA tests performed by an independent laboratory in Lorton, Va.

Robinson and Owen have represented Skinner for more than a decade and have represented other death-row inmates.

The attorneys will be presenting evidence to support Skinner’s innocence at an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Feb. 3 and 4 in Pampa. The court also will hear evidence presented by the state.

Robinson and Owen could not say at this time if Skinner will be present at the hearing.

The state Attorney General’s Office has taken over the case and will present the state’s case at the hearing.

Now in his early 50s, Skinner has been on death row in Texas longer than any other inmate.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his execution less than an hour before he was scheduled to die.

The first two rounds of DNA testing were performed by the Department of Public Safety’s Crime Lab in Lubbock.

In its advisory to the court, the Texas Attorney General’s Office wrote the DNA tests overwhelmingly showed that Skinner murdered Busby, his live-in girlfriend, and her two sons.

The independent lab in Virginia performed mitochondrial DNA tests on four hairs found in Busby’s hand. One of the hairs is consistent with Skinner, who lived in the house, and three of the hairs are consistent with the maternally related line of persons that included the three victims, but have been described by the state’s expert analyst as “visually dissimilar” to the victim’s hair.

Mitochondrial DNA is only passed on from the mother to her children, so people who are maternally related share the same mitochondrial DNA profile. 

“As a consequence, the results of such testing can only identify a group of related persons in a matrilineal line, rather than a particular individual, as the possible source of a given sample,” the attorneys wrote. “While it would therefore be most precise to say that this hair was identified as coming from someone in Mr. Skinner’s maternal line, we do not hesitate to say that it almost certainly belonged to Mr. Skinner, who lived in the house and whose hair was likely everywhere.”

The attorneys called the results from the other three hairs as “significant and exculpatory.”

“The mitochondrial DNA testing showed that those three hairs came from the maternally related line of persons that included the victims,” the attorneys wrote. “However, microscopic visual examination by the DPS crime lab has already excluded the victims themselves as potential sources for these visually distinct hairs. Therefore, the hairs must have come from a maternal relative of the victims. And while such relatives might have visited the house from time to time, it is highly unlikely that three of their hairs would have found their way into Ms. Busby’s hands by incidental contact.

“These mitochondrial DNA test results are exculpatory because they support the inference that Robert Donnell — a maternal relative of the victims and the man who stalked Ms. Busby and frightened her with crude sexual advances at a New Year’s Eve party less than an hour before she was murdered — committed the crimes, rather than Mr. Skinner.” 

Owens and Robinson claim the inference from the DNA tests is reinforced by the following circumstances:

• Donnell regularly and violently threatened his own wife with bodily harm and death.

• Donnell showed absolutely no emotion when informed by the police that his niece and her two sons had been murdered.

• Donnellwasseenfranticallywashingouthis vehicle — scrubbing his old pickup truck down to the metal floorboards with an astringent cleaner — just two days after the murders.

• Donnell has been identified by a witness as the owner of a blood-stained windbreaker jacket found next to Twila Busby’s body, which police collected as evidence from the crime scene and submitted to the crime laboratory in 1994. At present, the state claims to have lost this jacket, so it cannot be subjected to DNA testing.

The attorneys conclude in their advisory that in light of these circumstances and others, it is apparent that the doubts about Skinner’s guilt are far too weighty to allow his execution to proceed.

The state, however, has concluded that the DNA tests conducted in Lubbock overwhelmingly show that evidence collected at the crime scene consistently indicates Skinner is guilty of strangling and bludgeoning Busby in the living room of her home, along with murdering both of her sons.

Further, Skinner admitted he was in the home during the murders but failed to call police or seek help for the victims. Skinner chose instead to flee to a friend’s house wearing clothes soaked with the victims’ blood. He was hiding in a closet still wearing the bloody clothing when police arrived and arrested him a few hours after the triple homicide.