LIVINGSTON, Texas -- A Northwestern University journalism professor whose students have helped exonerate death row inmates in Illinois is now hoping to do the same for a Texas inmate.
Henry Watkins Skinner, 38, was convicted in 1995 of bludgeoning his girlfriend, Twila Jean Busby, 40, with an ax handle and then fatally stabbing her two mentally impaired sons at their Texas Panhandle home in 1993.
Mark Protess, the professor investigating the case, says Skinner's trial defense was inadequate and forensic testing was incomplete.
''It's a textbook case of a miscarriage of justice where you have the lethal recipe of police and prosecutorial misconduct, defense ineptitude and judicial indifference,'' he said.
Texas, which leads all other states in executions, has become the national focus of the death penalty debate, in part because of Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign. About a dozen executions are scheduled between now and the Nov. 7 election.
Skinner maintains his innocence. His case is under federal appeal and an execution date has not been scheduled.
Protess and his students have uncovered evidence leading to the exoneration of seven men convicted of murder in Illinois, including three on death row. Gov. George Ryan suspended all Illinois executions in January pending a task force study.
''Here is a case where the physical evidence begs to be tested, to find out whether Hank Skinner deserves to be on death row or a free man,'' Protess said.
Police found Skinner three hours after the killings in Pampa at a nearby home, his right hand cut and his clothes dotted with the blood of Busby and one of her sons, 22-year-old Elwin Caler.
That evidence, and three bloody palm prints found at the scene, was enough to tie Skinner to the crime, Gray County District Attorney John Mann said.
''Once we had enough to convince a grand jury and a trial jury of his guilt, that was enough to go with and I went with it,'' Mann said.
Skinner disputed that theory in a recent interview.
''If I had hit her in the head 14 times with an ax handle, wouldn't you think I would have been covered in blood instead of just a few spots?'' he said.
He said Caler's blood got on his clothes when the mortally wounded man tried to roust him from the living room couch.
Texas Department of Public Safety criminalist Gary Stallings has acknowledged much of the physical evidence wasn't tested.
''Everything that would point in Skinner's direction was examined and things that pointed away from him were ignored,'' said Skinner's attorney, Douglas Robinson.
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