Only the most psychotic and mentally disturbed murderers kill for no apparent reason. Herein lay a significant problem for the prosecution in the case against Hank Skinner. Hank is neither psychotic nor mentally disturbed – far from it in fact – he has a clear, analytical mind and is predisposed towards helping others, as evidenced by the consistently effective paralegal work he engaged in, protecting the constitutional rights of prisoners and those awaiting trial in Gray County, Texas. Consequently, a “rational” motive for murder had to be presented to the jury in order to help persuade them of Hank’s guilt.
Hank Skinner lived at the scene of the crime, so robbery was not an option. He and Twila Busby were in a relationship from which either party could leave at any time – consequently, neither would the prosecution be able to make motives of hatred stick – so they opted for jealousy, a notoriously spontaneous, heat of the moment motive in most murder cases.
There was only one problem – District Attorney John Mann was also trying to persuade the jury of a further, contradictory claim.
As part of its drive to establish Hank Skinner as the sole suspect for the crime, the prosecution was asserting that there was no person at the scene of the crime other than the victims and Hank Skinner when the murders were committed (this argument was false – in actual fact the investigation team actively declined to test any evidence which would not implicate Hank – evidence of the presence of a third party was undoubtedly, there; it was just not tested).
So, on the one hand the prosecution was arguing that Hank Skinner murdered his live-in partner and both of her adult sons out of jealousy – and on the other hand they were also arguing that there was no-one at the scene of the crime for Hank to have been jealous of.
A chance comment of one witness, Howard Mitchell, proved useful in the prosecution’s effort to “establish” jealousy as a motive.
Howard Mitchell had testified that, earlier on the night of the murders, he had called around to the house of Hank and Twila to pick them up for a party he was holding at his own property. He testified that when he arrived, Hank was lying unconscious on the sofa. After unsuccessfully trying to bring him round by repeatedly jerking hard on his arm, Howard Mitchell and Twila left for the party, leaving Hank to sleep it off on the sofa. Whilst at the party, Twila became agitated at the presence of her uncle, Robert Donnell, who had attacked and raped her in the past. That night Donnell was once again stalking her. Twila asked Mitchell to take her home, which he did. Outside Hank and Twila’s house, Mitchell gave her a New Year’s kiss before leaving for his own home “I don’t mean one of those lip slobbering deals, just a kiss, you know” [from Howard Mitchell’s trial testimony to the prosecution.]
Ludicrous though it may seem, the prosecution lamely attempted to imply that this innocent New Year’s peck was the spark for uncontrollable jealousy leading to capital murder.
From District Attorney John Mann’s summing up before the jury:
“Do you remember her [Dr. Elizabeth Peacock, state’s pathologist] telling you about the thickness of Twila’s skull, about how it was so much more thick than the average person’s skull … and yet, she got hit with enough force to break that skull and drive it into her brain at more than one location? Ladies and gentlemen, that is an act of rage. That is an act of rage. That is an act of Twila Busby having done what Henry Skinner, in his own voice and his own words, says on tape: ‘I told her not to go to Howard Mitchell’s house. Every time she goes over there, she screws up.’ You know what happened. He didn’t go, Twila did.
“I told you on our individual interviews we don’t have to prove motive, but we have. “The evidence shows – and a logical conclusion or deduction from the evidence is – when he wakes up, if he’s asleep, she’s gone. His vodka is gone. Howard Mitchell brings her home, they sit outside for four or five minutes and talk, he kisses her Happy New Year. She goes in the house and can you imagine the holy terror with which she was met. You can see it before your very eyes. This is an act of rage.”
There was no evidence at all to back up this speculative theory, and it can readily be disproved. For one thing, it seems clear from Mitchell’s original testimony at trial that Hank had no reason to feel jealousy:
Defense: And I believe you testified that you drove to the house [when taking Twila home after the party] and you drove up to the driveway and parked?
Mitchell: Yeah, I never even cut the car off. I just drove in there, stopped and give her a Happy New Year’s kiss and went straight back home
Defense: You didn’t get out of the car and go back into the house?
Mitchell: No, I didn’t.
Defense: Let me ask you if you ever had occasion to discuss with Twila her feelings for Hank Skinner?
Defense: What were her feelings for toward Hank Skinner, as she expressed them?
Mitchell: Basically, she said she was madly in love with him.
Defense:…Were you ever around her when she made that statement more than once?
Mitchell: She made it a lot of times.
Secondly, and most importantly, a cross-reference of three independent statements of testimony proves that Hank could not possibly have seen Twila arriving home or the New Year’s kiss Mitchell gave her.
All of the following was presented at trial.
Howard Mitchell testified that between 10 and 10:15pm he arrived at Hank and Twila’s home to find Hank “…laying on the couch, passed out….I couldn’t get any response out of him at all… I took hold of his arm and jerked on him and hollered at him…[he was]… kind of comatose maybe … I don’t mean a mild — I mean, he was — he didn’t have no reactions.” He then testified that he and Twila left the house – with Hank Skinner still lying unconscious on the couch.
Blood samples were taken from Hank approximately six and a half hours after the estimated time of the murders. These samples showed significant levels of alcohol and codeine. From these readings, and from the above testimony of Howard Mitchell, toxicologist Dr. William Lowry was able to determine and testify that at the time of the murders, Hank Skinner was in a “stuporous state”. The expert testified that in this state, most people would still be unconscious, although they could be awake. In the unlikely event that they would be awake, they “..would be exerting primarily most of the energy trying to stand, or walk…….in a stuporous state, a person would require holding onto something to maintain an upright position; not all the time a person is successful and they will be in a prone position and they would require a little more…assistance grabbing onto things to get back into the upright position.”. It is clear that in such a state, Hank would still be lying on the couch, either unconscious or effectively immobilized for all but the most dire of emergencies.
In response to the Defense question “..I believe you testified you drove to the house and you drove up the driveway and parked?”, Howard Mitchell further testified that “Yeah, I never even cut the car off. I just drove in there, stopped and give her a happy New Year’s kiss and went straight back home.”
Now here comes the crunch….
So, what we have now is testimony and blood sample evidence which consistently demonstrate that Hank Skinner was crashed out in the house, most likely unconscious – or at the very best semi-conscious and largely immobilized. In this state, Hank would have had to have been looking out of a window onto the driveway at the precise moment that Howard Mitchell gave Twila his New Year’s kiss; he would have had to have been lucid enough to recognize what was happening; animated enough to care about this harmless tradition; and – according to the prosecution allegations – strong and coordinated enough to take violent action against Twila Busby and both her sons.
Seems improbable already, doesn’t it!
However, the implausibility enters the realm of impossibility when one considers evidence which was never presented in court. To help illustrate, here is a drawing of the crime scene as it was laid out on the night of the murders:
Mitchell’s car was parked on the driveway (far right). Hank was lying in an unconscious or immobilized state on the couch in the living room. The front porch window (right) is the only one which looks directly onto the driveway. If Hank had been standing in the correct part of the room (over to the left), and if there was a clear view through the living room window and the right front porch window, he may possibly have been able to see the foremost section of the driveway. However, the porch window in question was obscured by boxes, a cooler and a dresser. Furthermore, Dr. Lowry was able to deduce that Hank could not possibly have been standing – indeed he was most likely unconscious.
To help illustrate further, above is a photograph of the porch and driveway. The vehicles parked in the drive have nothing whatsoever to do with the murders and so have been obscured to preserve anonymity.
For the prosecution theory to hold water – that Hank attacked Twila and her adult two sons out of jealousy over Howard Mitchell’s New Year’s kiss – one must believe that a staggering sequence of events took place.
Hank, lying on the couch, roused himself from an overdose induced state of unconsciousness with enough clarity to recognize, simply by hearing, that Mitchell and Twila had pulled into the drive.
There would have to be sufficient motivation for the tremendous effort Hank would need to reach a window with a view onto the drive. If one is to believe the prosecution theory, one must also believe that Hank suspected (against all evidence to the contrary) that Twila was being unfaithful to him – right there and then.
Recall that Hank was unconscious when Mitchell picked Twila up for the party – according to the prosecution, one must believe that by some means of intuition or sixth sense, Hank knew that Twila was not in the house, that she was in the company of a third party, and that that person was a man [not her sons] – since he was unconscious at the time he could not have seen or heard Twila leaving with Mitchell.
Given Hank’s immense difficulty in moving around, let alone standing, one must believe that he succeeded in dragging himself – stumbling and crawling – off and around the side of the couch, through the living room door, across the porch, climb up over the boxes, cooler and dresser and look out of the window at the small portion of the drive visible from that window. Or, (even further and with greater difficulty) reach and open the side door looking out onto the porch. He would have to achieve all of this with neither Mitchell nor Twila seeing or hearing his disoriented stumbling.
The above sequence of events would need to have taken place in the few minutes available between Mitchell pulling into the drive, saying goodnight, and leaving.
The Bottom Line
It seems inconceivable, then, that Hank could have killed Twila Busby and her two grown sons over witnessing Mitchell’s New Year’s kiss.
If he killed all three victims in a fit of jealous rage, there would have to have been another third party at the murder scene for him to be jealous of – but, in their haste to finger Hank as the sole suspect, the prosecution said there was no third party present other than Howard Mitchell.
Hank could not have witnessed Mitchell kissing Twila, therefore he could not have fled into a jealous rage. Even the prosecution realized that any other proposed motive was stretching credibility too thinly. Hence, no jealousy, no motive. This was a motiveless crime. Hank was an intelligent, able paralegal with a proven track record for caring and standing up for the rights of people he barely even knew. Why would he kill his loving partner and her two sons for any, let alone no, reason? The answer is simple. HE WOULDN’T.
Read more in the Due Process of Law section