PAMPA, Texas (AP) — A death-row inmate convicted of killing his girlfriend and her two sons in 1993 could have been exonerated by DNA evidence had it been stored properly by Texas investigators, an expert witness for the defense told a judge Monday.
Julie Heinig, assistant director of a private Ohio DNA lab, was among the forensic and DNA experts who testified during a hearing for Hank Skinner, whose attorneys are trying to spare him the death penalty.
Skinner was convicted of capital murder two years after Twila Jean Busby and her adult sons, Elwin Caler and Randy Busby, were found dead in their Pampa home. Prosecutors said Skinner used an ax handle to kill his 40-year-old girlfriend and stabbed her sons, who were both mentally impaired, on New Year's Eve 1993.
Heinig, who was hired as an expert by the defense, testified that she reviewed DNA evidence recovered from the house and found them not sufficiently trustworthy to send an inmate to the Texas death chamber. She said it had degraded because it was stored in plastic bags in an environment where temperatures weren't properly controlled.
Defense attorneys contend that more sophisticated DNA test results collected by an independent lab raise doubts about Skinner's guilt "too weighty" to allow his execution.
Attorneys for the state say the DNA confirms Skinner's guilt.
The hearing is being held to hear arguments on whether to vacate Skinner's death sentence. The hearing is expected to conclude on Tuesday, after which both sides will submit written arguments to the judge. It's unclear when a ruling could be made.
The Texas attorney general's office in November 2012 argued that new testing on 40 items "does not support Skinner's claim that an alternative suspect is the real killer."
Skinner has insisted he didn't kill his girlfriend and her sons, saying he was passed out on a couch from a mix of vodka and codeine at the time of their deaths. Prosecutors say traces of his DNA were located in blood in the bedroom where Randy Busby was found stabbed to death, and that Skinner's DNA also matched blood stains throughout the house.
Skinner's attorneys, in an advisory filed about its mitochondrial DNA tests, say results on three hairs found in Twila Busby's hands "support the inference" that a maternal relative of the victims killed the trio. Their results, Skinner's attorneys' filing states, show that any conclusion about the weight of the state's results "was premature."
Skinner's attorneys claim in the filing that the relative was seen "frantically washing out his vehicle" two days after the slayings and that he was the owner of a blood-stained windbreaker police collected from the crime scene that the state claims it has lost.