Down to His Final Meal, Hank Skinner Granted Stay of Execution in Texas Murder Case

Just as Hank Skinner was finishing his final meal on earth -- two chicken thighs, a double bacon cheeseburger, fried catfish, onion rings, French fries, a salad with ranch dressing and a milkshake -- he received the phone call he never thought was coming. His life had been spared by the United States Supreme Court.

"He was told by his attorney. Certainly, he was ecstatic," said Jason Clark of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in an interview with ABC News. I visited with him a short time afterwards and he was talking with his daughter, and he was excited."

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Clark was with Skinner in the moments leading up to his scheduled execution by lethal injection at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Walls Unit in Huntsville, and according to Clark, Hank Skinner was a man prepared to die.

"He didn't expect to get a stay, and thought he was going to be executed," Clark said.

Skinner had been on death row since 1995, after he was convicted of bludgeoning to death his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and stabbing her two mentally disabled sons to death on New Year's Eve in 1993. In the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa, police found Busby raped, strangled and beaten over the head more than a dozen times with an ax handle. One of her sons' bodies was found in bed; the other died as he tried to crawl from the house, according to police reports.

Skinner was arrested and charged with the murders. He had a previous record of assault and car theft and, according to court records, was a known drug and alcohol abuser.

In court, prosecutor John Mann called the killings "an act of rage" and labeled Skinner a "danger to society." Skinner was given the death sentence.

Questions Raised in Skinner's Conviction

Hank Skinner never wavered in his insistence that he did not murder Twila Busby and her two sons.

According to toxicology tests, Skinner had taken a mixture of Xanax and alcohol and a nearly-lethal dose of codeine the night of the murders; Skinner claims he was passed out on Busby's couch at the time she was killed. An affidavit from Skinner's friend Howard Mitchell said that Mitchell found Skinner "out cold" when Mitchell arrived to take him and Busby to a New Year's party.

Last Minute Stay of Execution: Questions in Texas Murder Case

Skinner also maintained that the real killer was Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell, whom Skinner claimed was a violent man who had made unwanted sexual advances toward Busby earlier on the night of her death. Donnell was killed in a car crash in 1997.

In 2000, Skinner's case was picked up by a group of students from the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Led by their teacher, David Protess, the students had already helped win stays of execution for 11 inmates on death row in Illinois by the time they took up Skinner's case.

They quickly began interviewing witnesses, including Andrea Reed, the prosecution's star witness at the time of the trial who said Skinner told her he killed Busby. Reed later recanted her testimony and told Protess' group she "felt pressured" by prosecutors to implicate Skinner, the group's report on the case says.

They also interviewed Donnell's widow, who they say claimed Donnell became violent when he drank. The report also says Donnell's neighbors claimed he wore a windbreaker similar to one found at the crime scene, and was spotted cleaning out his truck a few days after the murders.

The group's biggest find -- and the central point in Skinner's plea to have his case reexamined -- was DNA evidence never tested for trial, partly because Skinner's attorney at the time didn't want it.

Skinner's DNA was found at the crime scene, but Harold Cormer, his attorney at the time, said in reports then that he felt the samples would have implicated Skinner in the killings.

"It was obvious from the start that DNA would determine the truth of what happened in that house," Northwestern's Protess said today in an e-mail to ABC News.

Items not tested included Busby's rape kit, material found under her fingernails, hair and sweat found on the windbreaker, a bloody towel, and knives found at the scene. Protess' group began pressuring the state to test those items, as have Skinner and his current attorney, Robert Owen, for the past 10 years.

Those pleas were finally heard this week. After the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to recommend a reprieve for Skinner, several state lawmakers began lobbying Texas Governor Rick Perry to grant a reprieve.

Last Minute Stay of Execution: Questions in Texas Murder Case

Skinner's defenders cite other death-penalty cases in Texas as reasons to reopen this one:

In 2009 several investigative reports said Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for killing his three daughters, was wrongfully convicted on the basis of faulty evidence.

Timothy Cole, another man on death row who died of an asthma attack, was given a posthumous pardon by Perry after DNA evidence was finally tested and showed he did not commit the rape of which he was convicted.

"In honor of Tim Cole, I ask that you give Mr. Skinner a 30-day reprieve so that DNA testing can be performed and we can be absolutely certain that Mr. Skinner is truly guilty -- before it's too late," State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, wrote to Perry this week.

Perry had not acted as of yesterday, and Skinner was down to his final hour when the Supreme Court issued its stay.

"The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Scalia and by him referred to the Court is granted pending disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari," the court's order reads in part.

Skinner's stay is indefinite. He has been returned to Death Row for now. But the order does not necessarily mean it will accept Skinner's case for appeal. The court has said it will take more time to review the claims before it decides whether or not to intervene.

At Northwestern, David Protess said he was thrilled when he was told the news Wednesday evening.

"My next reaction was hope -- that the Supreme Court will grant Hank the DNA testing to help determine whether he is truly innocent," he said.

Protess said he is still unsure whether or not Skinner is innocent, but that is part of why this case needs to be reopened.

"That's why we need DNA testing. I wouldn't be pursuing those tests if there weren't substantial holes in the state's case. At this point, I'd say there's reasonable doubt about Hank's guilt," Protess said. "Our ultimate goal is finding truth, whether it's guilt or innocence."