“I am optimistic. I will never end up here, and for starters, I should never have been there,” Hank Skinner said during a meeting with AFP on the death row of his Texas prison.
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Imprisoned in Livingston, a small town 100 kilometers from Houston, the man with a full beard draped in salt and pepper and his big, expressive brown eyes has always maintained his innocence. He’s been crying out for miscarriage of justice 27 years ago, on March 18, 1995, he was sentenced to death for the murder of his girlfriend and her two children, in Pampa, North Texas.
France Press agency
This father-of-three, in his 60s, has been waiting for more than three years for a decision from the Texas Court of Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, which must determine whether the jury that sentenced him to death has made a verdict on him. A different decision if he had benefited from the DNA tests now available.
He did not deny his presence in the home where the three died, but claimed that he lost consciousness after drinking alcohol and codeine. The convict, near whom he was found covered in blood, claims that some DNA tests prove his innocence.
There are 197 inmates on death row in Texas. In 2020 and 2021, six were executed, but 11 were sentenced to death, having benefited from a review of their sentences.
Some remain behind bars, such as the mentally ill Raymond Rails, whose December 1976 death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Others are free, such as Cesar Fierro, who was sent back to Mexico after 40 years on death row.
If the court approves Hank Skinner’s defense, he will remain in prison but can appeal to prove his innocence.
On five occasions, the courts gave him a date of execution. On March 24, 2010, the United States Supreme Court banned him 23 minutes before a scheduled lethal injection, right after what was due to be his last meal.
Then his lawyer tells him the gospel.
“I dropped the phone and slid against the wall. I didn’t realize it, but tears were streaming down my eyes. I felt like someone was lifting a thousand kilograms off my chest. I felt light. I thought I would float…” explains Hank Skinner behind the glass, in the white uniform of a detention center Alan B. Polonsky.
The shock passed the euphoria and, ironically, he suffered a terrible backlash to the idea of returning to death row “and all the suffering is here.”
For him, seeing fellow inmates die is more difficult than being locked in a tiny cell of 22 to 23 hours a day, without television and without physical contact with people other than the guards when they handcuff or loosen him. In all, 127 inmates have been executed since 2010 in Texas, the nation’s most executed state.
He lives in noise from morning until evening: “There are restless people hitting the walls,” he testifies.
France Press agency
They are kicking doors, screaming and screaming the loudest. Others believe they are being spoken to and respond with a shout. And there are those who really communicate… but we learn to shrug.”
Without daylight and with breakfast around 3 am, it was impossible for him to find a regular rhythm in life.
He falls asleep when he collapses from fatigue and uses the quieter periods of the night to read the files of other convicted men more often.
Having worked in a law firm prior to his conviction, he shared his experience with them.
“I help appeal to anyone who asks me, except for those who rape children, and people who kill or maim children. ‘I can’t do that,'” he said into the detention center’s black headset.
“11 people got out of here. He’s better than almost any death row attorney except for one,” he adds with a laugh.
In 2008, the prisoner married a French activist against the death penalty, convinced that Hank Skinner was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
If he is released, “(we will) find a little home in a woodland where we can spend time together,” says Sandrine Georges Skinner today.
“I want to spend every minute of the years I have left with my wife,” says Hank Skinner.
The convict has another project: “the abolition of the death penalty in the world,” he says with a smile. I think if people knew what it was like, they wouldn’t vote for the death penalty. I have always believed in humanity.”
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