The Odyssey of a Condemned Texas Man's French Wife
- leader of the abolitionist movement in France; he - the 'rebellious
bohemian.' Time is short. ... To date, Sandrine Ageorges lists eight post-conviction appeals: all were rejected. The years of legal procedure did nothing but
mechanically draw Hank closer, step by step, to his execution. 'An unbearable
torture,' she says."
TEXAS: She would prefer to speak only of him and that we
leave out their marriage and the intimacy of this impossible couple -
between a French production manager and a Texas prisoner languishing
on death row for fifteen years, and who only has a few hours left. And she
would prefer that he remain himself: Hank Skinner, number 999143,
convicted of a 1993 triple murder that he says he didn't commit. He,
a 47-year-old construction worker that she's only been able to see
behind the Plexiglas of a visitors room, who has become one of the
iconic figures of a flawed system and who is today, more than ever,
hanging on a hypothetical last-minute reprieve from the Supreme Court
or the State Governor.
Seated in a restaurant alongside a Texas expressway, Sandrine
Ageorges is a woman of 49 with a gaunt appearance and impressive
capacity to communicate. The execution of her husband is scheduled
for Wednesday, March 24, at the end of the day. She hasn’t slept
much. The original date was February 24, but [a week before], a
state court ordered the death warrant postponed.
Note: On March 24, 45 minutes before he was condemned to death, the Supreme
Court ordered a temporary stay of execution in the case of Hank Skinner,
pending a decision on whether to allow DNA testing that the state of Texas has
Once again she had come here from France. And with a knot to her stomach,
she was hosted for the umpteenth time by a girlfriend in Houston in
what she calls her second home. At the announcement of the latest
postponement, she said she was "more than happy," but couldn't stop
thinking that this latest agony being imposed on her man was perhaps
worse than death.
She knows whereof she speaks. Sandrine Ageorges has been an activist
for the abolition of the death penalty for more than thirty years.
She has lost count of the cases she has taken up and defended - the
condemned with whom she has maintained written or telephone
correspondence. It is a commitment in the form of an obsession that
seized her as a teenager, in 1976 precisely, when she discovered on
TV a portrait of
(photo, right), condemned to death
and guillotined in France during the seven-year term of Valéry
Giscard d'Estaing. "Anger hasn't left me since," she said.
a stint with Amnesty International in London and the birth of a daughter, she
became a audio/video production director. In 1995, she read an article in Télérama about the Lamp of
Hope Project, which groups together those condemned to death in Texas. She
contacted them, and decided to translate the quarterly newsletter made with the
help of local activists.
[Editor's Note: According to the
group's Web site, the mission of the Lamp
of Hope Project is to "shed light on the truth about the terrible
conditions of our justice system and to bring hope to those who believe in
Ageorges then began corresponding with three prisoners: Gene Hathorn, whose
sentence was just commuted to life after spending 33 years on death row; Robert
Fratta, condemned to death for the second time, after his second trial opened
in 2009; and Hank Skinner.
reading Skinner's first letter, Sandrine Ageorges was moved. "I didn't
fall in love. I prefer to say that we immediately found ourselves." She wrote
long and very frequent letters. It followed a rhythm. For five years, they got
to know one another. She - leader of the abolitionist movement in France; he - the
a legal perspective, the Skinner affair immediately presents all the elements
of a bad thriller: a botched trial with proceedings marred by irregularities;
and an incompetent and corrupt court-appointed lawyer. Hank Skinner has the
perfect profile for a guilty man. A loudmouth and an alcoholic - he had
already been caught up in the justice system for petty theft. Then the police
found in his house, on the night of December 31, 1993, the body of his
girlfriend, with her head smashed by axe-handle blows and her two children,
stabbed to death.
24 interviews Hank Skinner's French wife, Sandrine
about the Supreme Court's decision to
He claims he spent the night at home, but remembers nothing. His
clothes were bloodstained. He has a cut on his hand. And Skinner was
accused by a neighbor of having threatened him, to prevent him from
calling the sheriff.
court, Hank Skinner protested his innocence, but in 1995 he was
condemned to die after two hours of deliberation. Since then, other
lawyers have taken up his case and various groups have conducted
counter-investigations. A toxicological analysis
conducted by an expert with the FBI, shows that Hank Skinner had
consumed, that night, enough vodka and codeine to have been incapable
of standing unassisted.
1997, the neighbor retracted his testimony, claiming to have been pressured by
police to incriminate Hank Skinner. Other troubling facts: several items found
at the crime scene were never analyzed to detect traces of DNA that could exonerate
him. Worse of all, his girlfriend's uncle, who has since died, was known for
a violent past and once sexually harassed his niece during a New Year's Eve
party, was never questioned.
is short. To date, Sandrine Ageorges lists eight post-conviction appeals: all were rejected. The years of legal procedure did nothing
but mechanically draw Hank closer, step by step, to his execution.
"An unbearable torture," she says.
One day, the idea of marriage was brought up. "If you need it,” she
tells him, “we will." He sent her his marriage proposal in May 2008.
With the letter hardly sent, the prison director banned Sandrine
from visiting. The wedding took place by proxy, in Houston,
four months later, in the presence of a member of the French Consulate.
Sandrine Ageorges Skinner with her husband Hank: as close as they've ever been.
won't discuss it. Neither Hank's lawyers nor the associations with which she is
active were told. Above all, she claims not to want anything to do those women
known as "killer groupies," groupies married to men on death row.
At present she's holding on, and wants to believe in the ultimate
intervention of the Supreme Court to order genetic testing. On
Wednesday, she won’t attend the execution if it takes place. Hank
didn't put her on the list, "to protect me," she whispers. She'll
wait outside, in front of the high walls of the Walls Unit in
Huntsville, the one where they kill Texans on death row.
Afterwards? She thinks. She knows she'll call a New York lawyer to
preserve the evidence and carry out the widely-debated DNA tests.
Even dead, she'll continue to fight for him, for the truth, for the
principles of human justice - and to continue the struggle.
[Editor's Note: Sandrine Ageorges has been an important part of this project , Worldmmets.US and its predecessor, for the past five years. She has translated or helped translate hundreds of articles from French on behalf of the American people and English-speaking world. For a sampling of her work, check out the Worldmeets.US archive].
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