The long court fight over DNA testing for death row inmate Hank Skinner grew lengthier Wednesday when the state’s highest criminal court ordered that a new analysis be performed on DNA tests that might have produced questionable results.
The Court of Criminal Appeals ruling was the latest response to a notice, sent last year by the FBI, alerting members of the criminal justice system about potential mistakes in the way DNA matches were calculated in samples that included DNA from multiple people.
The process, known as “DNA mixture interpretation,” produced results that could overstate the reliability of a match, which is typically presented as accurate to within a minuscule fraction of a percent, the FBI warned last May.
Skinner, sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of girlfriend Twila Busby and her two adult sons in the Panhandle city of Pampa, had long pressed for DNA testing that wasn’t available during his 1995 trial, saying the results would bolster claims that he was too incapacitated by alcohol and codeine to have beaten Busby and stabbed her sons to death.
However, tests of blood found on a knife recovered from the scene showed Skinner’s DNA mixed with that of Busby’s sons — Elwin Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20. Along with other DNA tests, the findings prompted state District Judge Steven Emmert to rule that the new results wouldn’t have been enough to change jurors’ minds about Skinner’s guilt.
Skinner’s lawyers challenged the judge’s interpretation of the DNA results, telling the Court of Criminal Appeals in a November 2014 filing that the findings undermined key aspects of the prosecution’s theory of the murders.
But while the court was weighing Skinner’s latest appeal, the FBI issued its memo on DNA mixtures, prompting the Texas Forensic Science Commission to advise prosecutors and defense lawyers to have such DNA results reassessed so a new match probability could be calculated.
The Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab announced last year that it had stopped using DNA mixture standards that had been in place since 1999. The DPS also agreed to issue new findings in Skinner’s test results but first needed to rewrite laboratory procedures and acquire specialized software, according to court records.
The new lab procedures will begin March 18, the DPS said Wednesday.
In its 8-1 ruling Wednesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals returned Skinner’s appeal to the trial court to “ensure that the recalculation is performed in a timely manner” and ordered the judge to submit new conclusions, if warranted, about the meaning of the test results.
The appeals court also said it wanted the matter resolved within 90 days, but it indicated that the deadline could be extended.
“They’re willing to let DPS take the time they need to accommodate us with the other cases they’re obviously going to be looking at as well,” said Rob Owen, Skinner’s lawyer and a law professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.