David Protess, President, Chicago Innocence Project Key Evidence Vanishes in Condemned Man's Case: Let's Help Texas Find It
Posted: 06/15/2012 2:27 pm
It is a faded beige windbreaker with snap buttons down the front, an article of clothing you wouldn't notice if you passed someone wearing it on the street.
But this windbreaker was anything but ordinary. It was discovered next to Twila Busby's body, stained with blood and sweat, and recovered by police in the Pampa, Texas home where Busby and her adult sons were slain on New Year's Eve in 1993.
And it did not belong to the murder victims or Henry "Hank" Skinner, who was convicted of the triple homicide and sentenced to death.
So whose DNA is on that windbreaker? We may never know because Texas lawmen, after spending more than a decade fighting DNA testing in the Skinner case before relenting two weeks ago, made a stunning admission on Tuesday: They lost the windbreaker.
Forty items of evidence will be tested in the coming weeks. But the windbreaker, most important among them, has vanished. Poof.
As I have reported, testing the windbreaker provided Skinner -- who once came within 47 minutes of execution -- with the best chance to prove his innocence. That's because witnesses have said it belonged to Twila's uncle, the late Robert Donnell, who was seen harassing her at a New Year's party before the murders -- and scrubbing his pick-up truck from top to bottom the next morning.
"Mr. Skinner has insisted that this jacket should be tested because it may have been worn by the assailant," said attorney Rob Owen in a statement. "It is beyond reasonable dispute that DNA testing on this jacket is critically important to the reliable determination of guilt in this case," Owen added. "It is difficult to understand how the State has managed to maintain custody of items as small as fingernail clippings, while apparently losing something as large as a man's windbreaker jacket."
It's also a mystery to Gary Noblett, a 41-year law enforcement veteran who now manages the Pampa police department's evidence. Noblett told the Austin Chronicle that everything the police stored was moved to the court for Skinner's trial. After the conviction, the evidence was returned to the county, but "somehow or another" the windbreaker never made it back. "No one's ever been able to find that thing," Noblett said.
Somehow or another you can't find the dang evidence? C'mon, you gotta be more creative than that. We're talking about DNA-rich evidence found two feet from a dead body in a capital murder case.
So where's the windbreaker? As a service to law enforcement, I'll modestly propose a few places where they might look.
• The Pampa cleaners over on Hobart St. that advertises "cheap dry cleaning." Perhaps the Pampa police saved the taxpayers money while getting rid of those unsightly stains. • Mann Ranch near Amarillo. The burial site of District Attorney John Mann, who selectively used DNA to convict Skinner, then later discovered some DNA tests excluded him, prompting Mann to halt further testing. Given Mann's obsession with burying evidence, check the coffin. • The Texas prison that is home to Rick Roach, Mann's successor as district attorney. Roach is now serving an 18-year sentence for firearms and drug abuse. At the same time he was injecting meth in the D.A.'s office, Roach was battling Skinner's request to resume the DNA testing. Could Roach have brought the bloodied jacket with him to cultivate a tough-guy image with his cellmates? • The Donnell residence. Perhaps it's hanging in a closet of the house where Robert Donnell once lived, having been graciously returned from the crime scene by cops who knew exactly where it came from. • Goodwill Industries in Pampa. It's also on Hobart St. near the dry cleaners, allowing them to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. The windbreaker might have been donated to charity after Texas lawmen tried unsuccessfully to sell it on eBay.
Readers: Post your suggestions. The only senseless idea would be to double-check the evidence locker where, you know, they store evidence. Don't bother. It's too obvious. That would be like checking the silverware drawer for, you know, silverware.
Texas prosecutors would say, of course, that the windbreaker is irrelevant, that Skinner is a guilty man who is desperately trying to delay his inevitable execution. They've pointed out that Skinner was in the home at the time of the crime and found with a cut hand and blood from the victims on his clothing. They've rejected the evidence by a witness and two toxicologists that Skinner was unconscious from ingesting alcohol and prescription meds, that the cut hand resulted from falling on broken glass when he awoke and the bloodied clothing came from trying to revive the victims. He's now gaming the system, they've said, and deserves to die.
But Skinner has been fighting for DNA tests for more than a decade, saying he believes they can prove his innocence -- and the guilt of another man. That would bring justice to this case and comfort to the family members of the murder victims. Now part of Skinner's hope, like the windbreaker, is gone.
If it's not in any of the places I suggested, maybe someone's wearing it who isn't picky about fashion. Here is a crime scene photo of the missing windbreaker. Anyone seen it? If so, contact Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
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