Appeal denied for condemned killer of 3

HOUSTON The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling posted late Tuesday, rejected 47-year-old Henry Watkins Skinner's argument that defense attorneys at his capital murder trial should have used a police blood spatter report to bolster his defense.

Skinner was convicted of fatally bludgeoning Twila Jean Busby, 40, with an ax handle, then fatally stabbing her two mentally impaired sons, Elwin Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20. The killings occurred at their home in Pampa in the Texas Panhandle.

The New Orleans-based court last year allowed Skinner's lawyers to advance an appeal of the blood spatter report claim after a federal district judge rejected a similar appeal.

"We agree with the district court that Skinner has failed to demonstrate that the omission of the report was sufficiently prejudicial," the court wrote. "Even taking the report at face value, Skinner overstates its implications.

Skinner argued the report showed that the blood on Elwin Caler came from his mother, suggesting someone other than Skinner was the killer. He also argued his trial lawyers failed to uncover evidence that another relative of the victims' was the killer.

But the court ruled it was "not reasonably probable" that blood spatter evidence would have caused the trial jury to acquit Skinner.

"There was ample evidence that Skinner was the murderer," the court said.

Skinner's lawyers at his 1995 trial acknowledged he was present at the time of the killings but said he was passed out on the couch from a combination of alcohol and codeine and was too incapacitated to commit the slayings.

Skinner's case came under scrutiny in 2000 because of the lack of forensic testing conducted during the investigation, despite a wealth of evidence, and questions about the behavior of Skinner's trial attorney, Harold Comer, who left his post as Gray County district attorney after improperly borrowing $10,000 from a drug seizure fund.

Comer earlier prosecuted Skinner for car theft and assault. As a defense attorney, Comer couldn't object when prosecutors used those convictions as proof Skinner would be a future danger to society, one of the questions jurors must resolve when deciding on a death sentence.

Prison records show Skinner, who worked as a paralegal, received a five-year term for car theft in 1988 in Gray County, was paroled a year and a half later to Harris County, but was returned to prison six months later for violating his parole. He was paroled again in late 1989 and discharged in May 1993, seven months before the triple slaying.

Last November, Skinner was among numerous Texas death row inmates found contraband cell phones. An X-ray scan revealed a phone inside his rectum.

He does not have an execution date.

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