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."
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.
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.
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.