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A stay for Hank Skinner — but it’s not over

Published Apr 5, 2010 8:37 PM

Even as the minutes slipped away before her spouse was to be put to death, Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner never lost hope that he would win a reprieve.

“On the telephone earlier that day, I told him, ‘I’m sure that you are going to live,’” the French anti-death penalty campaigner said. “He said to me, ‘If you could see what I see all around me, you wouldn’t say that.’”

“He was three meters from the death chamber and mere minutes from death when word came from the U.S. Supreme Court that granted a last-minute stay of execution,” Ageorges-Skinner told Workers World.

Veteran abolition activist Njeri Shakur commented: “Talk of cruel and unusual! Hank has proclaimed his innocence for 15 years, has asked for DNA testing yet the district attorney refuses to release the DNA, and finally they take him to the death house. Then at the last minute his life is spared. The courts could have done this days ago or months ago or even years ago! Why did they torture this innocent man up to the last minute?”

Forty minutes before he was to be executed on March 24, Texas death row prisoner and activist Hank Skinner was spared by the U.S. Supreme Court. His spouse and two daughters had told him good-bye, his friend and spiritual advisor had met with him and was prepared to witness the execution, Skinner had eaten his last meal, and he had resigned himself to being murdered by the state of Texas.

With a crowd of Skinner’s supporters gathering outside the death house, lawyer Rob Owen arrived at the Huntsville hotel where Ageorges-Skinner, her stepdaughter Natalie Skinner, and a throng of supporters were getting into their cars to drive the two miles to the Walls Unit where Skinner was awaiting execution. When Owen announced a stay, screams and cries of joy pierced the quiet air of this small East Texas prison town.

An impromptu victory rally was held minutes later outside the death house. A leader of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement took the microphone and blasted the cowardly state officials who were going to allow an execution when the forensic evidence had not even been tested. She then introduced Skinner’s family, who addressed the crowd.

‘It’s still not over’

“I thank all of you who are here today who have stood by us on this journey. I wouldn’t have been able to stand up and talk right now if not for you. It is still not over, however,” Ageorges-Skinner said.

“The Supreme Court granted a stay so they could have more time to consider whether to accept Hank’s cert petition. If they accept it, then it could be a while before they rule on whether to allow him to proceed to sue the Gray County D.A. to release the evidence for testing. If they do not accept the cert petition, then Texas will be free to set another execution date.”

Ron Carlson, who has lived through the murder of his sister, Deborah Thornton, in 1983 and his father less than a year later, also spoke. He stressed that executions were vengeance, and should be abolished.

Activist Angie Agapetus spoke to the crowd about Sam Bustamante’s scheduled execution on April 27. “Sam should not be executed. He has mental health issues that should stop it. Please write to the governor and Board of Pardons and ask that they grant clemency for Sam.”

While dozens of Skinner’s supporters gathered to celebrate at a local Mexican restaurant, Ageorges-Skinner and Curtis McCarty, an Oklahoman who came within hours of execution before DNA evidence exonerated him, snuck away with CNN staff and cameras to appear live on the Larry King Show. Supporters watched the show from the restaurant, cheering when Skinner was interviewed. He told how he couldn’t get any Texas court to order DNA testing, even though it could prove either his innocence or his guilt.

Skinner arrived on Texas death row in 1995, and has consistently stood up for not only his own rights but those of others. He has written a newsletter over the years entitled “The Hell Hole News” that has chronicled the injustices and violations of laws by the wardens, guards and staff at death row.

For his activism, Skinner has been targeted by prison staff for especially cruel treatment, right up to the last days before his scheduled execution. His spouse was banned from writing and visiting him for the last 22 months, based on fabricated charges.

Skinner has stayed strong, even while being tortured. His cell has been searched four times a day, and he was stripped of all his personal and legal property. He has been denied many visits, including one by a Papal emissary the week before his scheduled execution.

The struggle to save Skinner’s life came on the heels of an Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break held in Austin the week of March 15-19. Scores of students from around Texas and the United States gathered to learn about the use of the death penalty, how to organize against it, how to do media work, how to organize a rally and how to lobby a state legislature.

Students lobbied on Skinner’s behalf. As a result Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis and State Rep. Elliott Naishtat wrote letters to Texas Gov. Rick Perry asking for a stay of execution to allow for DNA testing.

A highlight of the week was the presence of six men who had collectively served over 65 years on death rows around the country but were released after being proven innocent. All six spoke at a Capitol rally that ended the week on a high note.

“A quick reminder, April 4 is Hank’s birthday, so don’t hesitate to drop him a line or send him a card,” Ageorges-Skinner told Workers World. His address is Henry Skinner #999143, Polunsky Unit, 3872 F.M. 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351. (www.hankskinner.org)