June 23, 2013 http://www.france24.com
Hank Skinner escaped execution in 2010 by only 20 minutes after a dramatic 11th-hour reprieve. He now regards this as a miracle.
The 51-year-old, who was convicted in 1995 of the brutal triple murder of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons, has protested his innocence for years, despite DNA evidence against him.
Haunted by the possibility of execution, the wait has taken a mental toll, says Skinner, who admits that in one sense, death may come as a relief.
“Living under the sentence of death is never off, it’s always on your mind. It’s always sitting on your chest, it’s always on your shoulders and they’re killing people about once a week. It’s so heavy because there’s a pall of death over this place,” he told AFP in an interview.
He tries to paint a picture for outsiders: “If someone kidnaps you and takes you down to the basement and they have jail cells there, six of them. There are six people here and every morning they come down with a gun with six bullets. They point it at you and you hear somebody die right next to you”.
“The first 10 times it happens, you think you’d be glad it’s not you, but after so many times, watching it happen to somebody else, you’d be praying the gun would go off on you.”
Texas prosecutors argue that recently re-examined DNA evidence taken from the crime scene proves Skinner’s guilt.
They point to a knife found caked with his blood, and blood spattering on the walls of a room where two of the killings took place.
Skinner’s legal team counter by insisting the DNA evidence paints only a partial picture of the scene, that Skinner was injured and that questions remain about the disappearance of a bloody jacket worn by Busby’s late uncle.
Skinner points out that the first round of tests showed the presence of a third person’s DNA at the scene whose name has not been determined.
As things stand, barring another twist to his case, Prisoner Number 999-143 is still on death row, at the Polunsky Unit jail in Texas.
But Skinner said he has not given up hope of a final reprieve.
And while he insists he is innocent, he is adamant that even the guilty among his fellow death-row inmates deserve pity.
“I’ve been here 20 years now and they have killed 400 people since I’ve been here,” he says into a telephone sitting behind a reinforced glass divide. The 500th execution is scheduled for Wednesday in nearby Huntsville.
“People don’t realize, they say ‘Oh these guys are monsters’ or whatever. They’re not, they’re just regular people just like me”.
“You walk in the normal world you’d find the same people you find here, they’re just people who made terrible awful mistakes but they can’t be judged by the single worst thing they’ve done in their life.”
During his incarceration, Skinner has married a French wife, the militant anti-death penalty activist Sandrine Ageorges, who regularly visits him.
Skinner longs for a day when he can taste freedom and take Ageorges in his arms.
“The girlfriend that was killed she was the woman of my dreams,” says Skinner. “I have the same thing for Sandrine. You’ve seen love at the first sight, that’s pretty much what it was.
“I definitely see her as my second chance, we think so much alike, it’s amazing. We got married by proxy … when I get out of here we’re gonna have another marriage ceremony where I can be there and I can really kiss her.”
Despite the looming veil of execution, Skinner says he retains a lust for life. “I am a big party person, I like to make love, I like to have a good time, I like to laugh, to tell jokes,” he says.
He regards his 2010 reprieve, when the US Supreme Court stayed his execution in order to consider the question of whether DNA tests not requested by his trial lawyer could be carried out, as a “miracle.”
He vividly recalls his last meal, the journey to the execution chamber, and the realization that he had been spared.
“When they took me over there to kill me … they brought my last meal.
“I ate it all, the whole time I could look right up in bars through this door and there’s the gurney and the microphone hanging there and the witness window. Literally looking at death”.
“Getting in a bus to go to a place you’ve never been, like a different planet. The unknown, I’ve never died before. I don’t know what it’s like. But I know it’s permanent,” he laughs.
“My head was buzzing, and I dropped the phone. I couldn’t hear anything, I thought I was floating. I couldn’t believe it,” he said of the moment when he realized he had escaped execution by a matter of minutes.
Although he holds out hope of winning his freedom, Skinner has revealed the last words he then had thought of: “Before this body is even cold, I will walk again.”