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6-Years Later, Part One
It's a story that shocked central Illinois. A man gunned down during the holidays in 2008. An elderly woman, a great-grandmother, charged and convicted of the crime.
For the first time, Shirley Skinner speaks in a jailhouse interview exclusively with Newschannel 20.
Steven Watkins met Jennifer Blair in 2007, where they married, had a child, and separated, all within 18 months. What followed was a nasty child custody battle over baby Sidney.
It was on the night of November 25, 2008, that Steven would travel to the Skinner home in Ashland to pick up baby Sidney for a court ordered visit that unleashed a whirlwind of questions, accusations, and the lingering mystery of what happened inside that home.
At the May 2010 trial, jurors heard of no physical or forensic evidence linking Shirley to the murder weapon, and there were no eyewitnesses pointing the finger of guilt at her.
At the recommendation of their attorneys, none of the Skinner family testified.
Jurors convicted the 74-year-old of first degree murder after hearing from three medical first responders who responded to the scene the night of the shooting, all saying that Skinner said "I shot him," "Is he dead?" and "He shouldn't have come back here."
All her state appeals on the murder conviction have been denied or dismissed. Shirley Skinner now waits for a decision from the governor on a clemency request.
Shirley Skinner is now speaking out, telling her side of the story, nearly six years after that fateful night.
Six years after the fact and four years after being convicted of the first degree murder of her granddaughter's estranged husband, Steven Watkins, 79-year-old Shirley Skinner is finally admitting to what prosecutors accused her of all along.
"I honest to God shot the man. I didn't mean to, but I did," Skinner said.
Skinner breaks her silence to ABC Newschannel 20 at the Logan Correctional Facility in Lincoln. After exhausting all her state appeals and petitions, her husband, daughter and Shirley's appellate attorney pleaded for mercy from the state's prisoner review board, seeking a commutation from Go. Pat Quinn of her 55 year prison sentence during a January hearing.
According to testimony during Skinner's trial, Watkins had come to the Skinner home on November 25, 2008, to pick up his 16-month-old daughter, Sidney, for his court appointed unsupervised visitation. A lone bullet struck
Watkins in the back of his head. One prosecutor told the jury that Watkins' killing was an "execution."
The motive, prosecutors opined in court, was that some members of the Skinner family, lead by estranged wife Jennifer, would do anything, even kill, to stop Steven Watkins from getting custody of baby Sidney. Not so says Shirley Skinner.
"No. I promised to God it did not happen, so help me," Skinner said.
Much of the story has been well documented of the years through media reports, including many by ABC Newschannel 20.
A 211 page transcript of a court hearing in September 2008 between Steven and Jennifer reveals details of an ugly child custody case, with Steven fighting for unsupervised custody of his child and ultimately full custody. His estranged wife Jennifer is vehemently against Steve having unsupervised visitation of any kind, let alone full custody.
The court transcript shows the battle is marred by accusations of domestic violence and child sexual abuse levied against Steven, all of it investigated by a state agency, with this document labeled the allegations as "unfounded."
Fast forward from September to November 25. In the hours leading up to Steven picking up baby Sidney at the Skinner's that evening, a flurry of activity took place.
Jennifer and her mother Debbie Webster admit they hire private eye that morning.
"So that he could witness those things going on and so that we could build our case as to why Steven should not have unsupervised visits or visits at all with Sidney," Jennifer said.
A few hours after they ask the p-eye to come by that evening, Jennifer says she met with Sidney's child psychologist and talked about the plan to have the private investigator witness Sidney's reaction when Steve would come to pick her up.
"She said it's not gonna matter how Sidney reacts to that because the visitation is going to happen anyhow," Debbie Webster said.
Based on that, Debbie says she calls the private investigator about it and tells him.
"'Don't bother coming, I don't need you tonight. And I didn't get into anything else.' That's all I told him," Debbie said.
The prosecution had presented another theory at trial for why they hired and fired the p-eye in a matter of hours.
At trial, Jennifer's defense attorney, Nolan Lipsky, testified that he phoned Jennifer just before lunch time on November 25 to tell her she needed to be present at the next day's child custody hearing. This call log put together by Illinois State Police shows attorney Lipsky placed a call to Jennifer's phone at 11:10 a.m. The call lasted 15 minutes. Lipsky, citing attorney-client privilege refused to testify about specifics of that call.
Steven Watkins was still looking for unsupervised overnight visitation and eventual full custody of Sidney at the last custody hearing a few months earlier. The same custody judge awarded Watkins unsupervised visitation, and on this night, November 25, Steven comes to the Skinner's Ashland home for one of those court ordered visitations.
The time is now 5:30 p.m., and a neighbor of the Skinner's tells a police investigator he sees Steven alive, sitting in his parked car on the street outside the Skinner home. There are no witnesses who can say what time they see Steven enter the Skinner home, but we do know that by 5:43, Steven is shot and lying motionless inside, because that's when the first 911 call would be placed.
Now, for the first time, Shirley Skinner goes on the record and tells us what she says happened for some of those mystery 13 minutes.
"Steve was supposed to set out along the road," Shirley said. "The policeman told him to sit out there and we would bring the baby to him, and when he drove up, the dog would always bark. We had a poodle. And Sid would look at her mommy, she knew something was wrong."
Shirley says Sidney threw up and Jennifer went to a back bedroom to change her. Her husband, Ken, says he was in the in-law suite watching television with the door to the main house closed. Shirley says she was in the kitchen adjacent from the front door cleaning up.
"When the door flew open," Shirley said.
"The door wasn't locked?" Vince DeMentri, ABC Newschannel 20, said.
:No, and he looked and said 'where in the hell is Sidney?' And I said 'well she got sick. 'Don't give me that,' he said. 'I'm taking that kid tonight over her f**k dead body,' and he came in and he got to the kitchen table, and I grabbed him by the arm and I said 'Now wait a minute Steve.' And he turned around and grabbed me and knocked me down. That's when I fell into the wall," Skinner said. "He scared me so bad that I jumped up and grabbed the gun out of the cupboard."
The cupboard, she says, was above the kitchen range, about six feet high.
"And I said 'Steve, stop, Steve, stop.' And I yelled it two times and he didn't stop and I fired and I was sure I fired over his head. I didn't mean to kill him," Shirley said.
While changing Sidney in one of the back bedrooms, this is what Jennifer says she recalls.
"I heard the door slam open and I heard my grandma talking back and fourth, and I honestly didn't know who it was at first," Jennifer said.
Jennifer says she couldn't make out what was being said and initially paid little mind to it. Jennifer says the talking turned into shouting.
"And I remember I yelled at her 'What's going on?' And I heard a thud and then I heard footsteps," Jennifer said. "It was footsteps coming, coming back to where I was and I heard her yelling 'Stop! Stop!' and then I heard a pop and was all I heard. it was a matter of seconds."
When we interviewed Shirley's husband Ken, he told us he was watching tv. It was up loud, he said. He doesn't hear well and wears hearing aids.
"I did hear a thump and a pop, and I got up out of my chair and run through here," Ken said. "This door was closed."
Ken told us he hadn't seen Steve yet. Jennifer says when she came out of the bedroom, she saw Steven motionless, faced down in a pool of blood, just feet from where she says she was changing baby Sidney.
"My granddaughter came out and she said 'Nan what happened?' And I said 'Well, I shot Steve.' My husband opened the door and kinda got, and he said 'Mom what was that? Did a balloon pop?' And I said 'Well, I shot Steve.'"
There's much more from that exclusive jailhouse interview that we'll get into Tuesday night, including the first thought that ran through Shirley Skinner's mind after she shot and killed Steven Watkins.
Skinner talks about remorse, regrets, and apologies. Also, we'll hear from Steven Watkin's mother.
We sat down with Penny Watkins and showed her Shirley's prison interview as Shirley talks more about the night she killed Steven.
Penny Watkins responds to that and much more of what Shirley had to say, including the personal message she had for the Watkins family.
This was Penny's initial reaction after watching Shirley's interview.
"He isn't here to dispute her comments, you know, her slanderous, outrageous lies," Penny Watkins says. "He's not here to say 'I didn't do that, she's lying.' So I'll speak for Steven, since Shirley Skinner silenced his voice."
Part two of 6 Years Later, Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on Nightside.