The injuries suffered by Twila Busby included a strangulation attempt which rendered her unconscious, and a blunt force trauma to the head which killed her. As Dr. Elizabeth Peacock (states’ pathologist), testified at trial, both these injuries would have required significant force on the part of the attacker. However, Hank Skinner has an injury in his right hand which would have rendered him incapable of performing such an attack on any date remotely near that of the murders. We shall present Dr. Peacock’s testimony regarding the force of attack soon, but first, in order to place her account in proper context, it is important to hear from the testimony of Joe Tarpley, an Occupational Therapist specialising in hand therapy. [it is interesting to note, incidentally, that the jury at trial heard Elizabeth Peacock’s testimony before Mr. Tarpley’s …. please read on.]
Defense: “….Did you come to any certain conclusions or findings about any limitations of motions, motion that he had in either the right or the left hand?”
Joe Tarpley: “The limitation I found were in his right hand and related mostly to his thumb. And there were both limitations in range of motion and strength”.
When asked for his opinion as to whether or not Hank Skinner would be capable of performing a “choking motion where you would be bringing your fingers forward and your thumbs downward in a choking motion”:
Joe Tarpley: “…[The norm strength in an adult male hand is] … usually about 100 pounds force….and you would expect about a 15 percent increase on the dominant hand…”
Defense: “The defendant is right handed?”
Joe Tarpley: “Correct”
Defense: “And you would expect 100 pounds … in the left hand. And you would expect 115 pounds in his right hand; is that correct?”
Joe Tarpley: “Roughly”
Defense: “..can you express to the jury how much pounds of force he did have in his left hand?”
Joe Tarpley: “His left hand … is 99 pounds of force, which fit right in with the norms.”
Defense: “Pretty close to 100?”
Joe Tarpley: “Right. In his right hand he had just about 48 pounds of force, which is just about one half.”
Defense: “But if his right hand is dominant, then the normal there for a person would be 115 and he had 48?”
Joe Tarpley: “Uh-huh…”
Defense: “And as I understand, according to your opinion, that would be a serious limitation on anyone to be able to perform the motion that I described to you [the throttling motion]?”
Joe Tarpley: “Yes”
Furthermore, the injuries in Hank’s hand would have been even more debilitating on the date of the murders. Joe Tarpleys tests were conducted 15 months after Hank’s arrest and 19 months after the injury to his right hand. Tarpley testified that within one year of the accident, Hank’s hand would have recovered as much as it would ever do.
So …. what this means is that 15 months after the murders, when Joe Tarpley tested Hank’s manual strength – and when there would be no further recovery from the injury – his right hand was still only capable of 40% normal adult force. 15 months previously, the strength in his right hand would have been significantly poorer (20% to 24% normal adult force). The murderer would have needed the effective use of both hands to perform a strangulation severe enough to render Twila Busby unconscious, breaking the bones in her neck – and effective use of both hands to deliver a blunt force trauma attack powerful enough to fracture an abnormally thick skull thereby causing death [the weapon identified as that which inflicted the fatal skull injury was a thick, heavy axe handle].
It is interesting to consider the medical background affecting the condition of Hank’s hand. The injury was barely healed at the time of the murders because the surgeon in the E.R. on the day it happened had left it improperly dressed before sewing it up, so there were still metal shavings & machine oil in the wound from the machine blade which had spliced Hank’s hand open when the accident happened. Three weeks later Hank went to another doctor who removed most of the stitches, cleaned the wound up, inserted a drainage tube and put him on high-powered antibiotics. For a while, the doctors thought they may need to amputate the hand. Fortunately for Hank, this proved unnecessary, but the wound was slow to heal.
Details highlighting the sheer force of the attacks is vividly recounted in Dr. Elizabeth Peacock’s testimony both at the original trial and at the Hearing on Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus, held in January 1994.
From the Application hearing: Regarding the strangulation of Twila Busby, leading to unconsciousness, Dr. Peacock had this to say:
John Mann: A few minutes ago, doctor, you told us about — as we looked at one of these photographs about some injuries to her neck — Dr. Peacock: Yes … She had fractures of the bones of her neck. The larynx itself had fractured, the right portion of it, and there is a curved “U” shaped bone at the base of the tongue called a hyoid bone, just above that, that was fractured on the right also. . . .
Harold Comer [defense]: Can you express an opinion one way or the other whether or not the strangulation could have been manual; that is, by use of a hand and thumb, or other ways?
Dr. Peacock: Due to the curbed lacerations on the anterior portion of her neck that appeared to me as classic strangulation markings. Those are the fingernail marks in manual strangulation.
Comer: Would you say that well, can you say how much force — this may be unfair, I don’t know. It’s hard to judge force. But how much force would it take for an individual to strangle another person into unconsciousness or death?
Dr. Peacock: I wouldn’t want to venture a guess because that’s what it would be. But defense persisted, and finally got a reply:
Comer: It would take some strength?
Dr. Peacock: Yes.
And on the blunt trauma blows to Twila’s skull:
John Mann [prosecution]: Was there anything unusual about your findings of the facial bones or skull bones of the victim, Twila Busby, that was of interest to you with regard to the amount of force required to cause these injuries….?
Dr. Peacock: Ms. Busby [Twila] had a condition of her skull called hyperostosis … which means that the skull itself is thicker than normal people’s skull…..And in this case, hers [Twila’s]…. was very, very dense, and it took a long time to saw the remainder of the skull to get the brain out, and we had to stop and let the saw cool down because it had gotten overheated.
Dr. Peacock had testified at the original trial on this same matter:
John Mann: What, if anything, in your opinion, did that condition [Twila’s thickened skull] mean with regard to the amount of force taken to fracture the skull?
Dr. Peacock: It would have had to take considerably more force. [emphasis added] And Later….
John Mann: Did you examine the tissue of the brain?
Dr. Peacock: Yes.
John Mann: What, if anything, did you find with regard to any injuries there?
Dr. Peacock: There was extensive subarachnoid haemorrhage… There were fragments of skull actually driven into the brain … where the cerebral spinal fluid exists in the middle portion of the brain.
The accident to Hank’s hand occurred in late July, a little over 4 months before the murders. Three weeks later, the doctors were preparing to amputate. Nine weeks after that Hank was accused of murdering one woman and two men with precision and brute manual force. This accusation is clearly impossible and insupportable.
Clearly, when viewed together the testimonies of Joe Tarpley and Dr. Elizabeth Peacock lie uneasily with, indeed in direct contradiction to, the state theory that Hank Skinner was the attacker. Given Mr. Tarpley’s conclusions regarding the limited strength in Hank’s hands, and Dr. Peacock’s clear assertions that the attacker inflicted injuries upon Twila Busby which required immense manual strength, it seems inconceivable that a jury of twelve people could unanimously conclude Hank to be guilty – but they were misled by the sequence of testimony and the omission of significant facts which place the whole case in proper context – in short they never heard the truth.
However, in presenting this text we have the benefit of hindsight. We are able to hear Joe Tarpley immediately before Elizabeth Peacock. The Jury’s first impression, on the other hand, was Dr. Peacock’s testimony [on 14th March] highlighting grossly violent, vicious attacks. Only two days later [on the 16th March] this they hear from Joe Tarpley that Hank Skinner was physically incapable of inflicting such injuries. But by that time, in the face of the horror related on the 14th, one can only imagine the impressions of Hank Skinner that would have naturally, irredeemably formulated in their minds.