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6-Years Later, Part Two
Nearly six years have passed since Steven Watkins was shot to death inside Shirley Skinner's home in the small farming town of Ashland. Skinner, an elderly great-grandmother, is now behind bars, convicted of killing Watkins.
The case gripped central Illinois for years.
A nasty child custody court battle over Steven and Jennifer Watkins' infant daughter is the source of bitter tension between the Skinner and Watkins' families, and prosecutors allege a willingness to keep baby Sidney away from Steven was the motive for murder.
Shirley Skinner never took a stand in her own defense, and neither did any of her immediate family members. Her family members who were called to testify in front of a grand jury each, according to court documents, pleaded the fifth.
All with whom we spoke told us they remained mum on advice of legal counsel.
Shirley Skinner, now 79-years-old, makes a startling confession, admitting to us that she killed her granddaughter's estranged husband, Steven Watkins, with a single bullet that struck in the back of the head.
Skinner says it began after Watkins barged into her Ashland home on the night of November 25, 2008. He was there to pick up his baby daughter, Sidney, for his court ordered unsupervised visitation.
"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 I grabbed him by the arm and said 'Now wait a minute, Steve.' And he turned around a grabbed me and knocked me down," Shirley Skinner said. "He scared me so bad that I jumped up and grabbed the gun out of the cupboard, and I said 'Steve. Stop, Steve.' And I yelled it two more 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."
No one can back up Shirley's story with full certainty. Her granddaughter, Jennifer Watkins, says she was in the rear of the home changing Sidney, who had become sick moments before the incident began.
"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. "And I heard her yelling 'Stop! Stop!' And then I heard a pop and was all I heard. It was a matter of seconds."
Shirley's husband, Ken, says he was in the couple's in-law suite. The door to the main house was closed and he was watching television.
"I did hear a thump and a pop and I got up out of my chair and run through here," Ken said.
In those few seconds it takes Ken and Jennifer to come running to her, Shirley says one thought began racing through her head.
"After I shot him, I thought about shooting myself," Shirley said. "It scared me so bad. I took the gun and laid it out on the box."
Authorities say it was on this moving box that police found the 9mm glock pistol Shirley used to fire the fatal bullet that killed Steven Watkins, who was faced down in a pool of blood just feet from the entrance way leading to the rear bedroom area where Jennifer and Sidney were.
"I didn't want to walk around the corner because I was scared," Jennifer said. "And I poked my head around the corner and I saw him lying there, and I saw my grandmother and I'm like what's going on?"
"I said, 'Well I shot Steve,'" Shirley said.
We showed Steven Watkins mother, Penny, extended edited portions of Shirley's jailhouse interview. Penny Watkins seemed to not only listen intently to Shirley's words, but also study closely her body language. When the tape stopped, Penny turned to ABC Newschannel 20's Vince DeMentri, telling hi she wasn't buying any of it, especially six years after the fact.
"And the only time now that she wants to come forth and say something and have you people give her a voice is because it can't be tried in. It can't be scrutinized in a court of law. There's no examination. There's no cross examination. You know, simple to put it, Shirley is a murderer. And she's a flat out, unmitigated liar," Penny Watkins said.
Understandable, the Watkins family is angry. Court documents show that Steven and his estranged wife Jennifer were battling over custody rights for their 14-month-old daughter. The couple was due in court the next day for another custody hearing where some members of both the Watkins and Skinner families say they believed the custody judge was leaning toward giving Steven Watkins unsupervised overnight visitation of baby Sidney.
Something Jenifer vehemently opposed, according to testimony from her divorce attorney.
And Penny Watkins agreed with one of the state's prosecutors, who told Shirley Skinner's jury that she had "executed" Steven with a single gunshot to the back of his head.
"These people are evil. We don't need evil in our life," Penny said. " I believe he was invited in to wait for them to finish getting Sidney ready for the visit. I believe Jennifer probably hollered at him and said 'Steve, she's almost ready, come on back.' I believe Shirley walked up behind him and shot him. And that's what I believe happened."
Skinner says she understands the deep animosity Penny Watkins and her family feels toward her and her family.
"I'd like to tell them that I'm sorry," Shirley said.
Most notable, she wishes she could speak with Steven's other daughter from a previous relationship - Alex, who is now 14-years-old - who Shirley says she has fond memories of before the bitter rift takes place between Steven and Jennifer.
"I would love her and tell her that I was very sorry for what I'd done to her dad, and I would never do anything to hurt her. I know I have and I'm sorry, and I hope someday she can forgive me. I don't know if she can, but at least I'm asking," Shirley said.
"She's had six years, never offered an apology," Penny said. "We've not seen a letter of regret. We've not seen an apology, She hasn't even wrote Alex and 'I'm sorry.' Not one person in that family has ever said 'I'm sorry.' Until at Shirley's clemency hearing."
At Shirley's clemency hearing last January, 14-year-old Alex Watkins, Steven's other daughter from a previous relationship, made an impassioned plea to the prisoner review board to keep Shirley imprisoned.
Penny Watkins criticized Shirley for not making these statements before everyone at her hearing. However, the prison board does not allow incarcerated inmates to appear in person at clemency hearings. The prisoner review board says in lieu of being at the hearing in person, Shirley Skinner could have recorded a video taped statement to be played for everyone, or she could have penned a letter to be read by a family member.
When asked about those options, the Skinner family says they were unaware of those choices. So her husband, daughter and Shirley's appellate attorney spoke on Shirley's behalf, citing her remorse and noting her failing health, a bad heart, two bouts with skin cancer, digestive and mental health issues as reasons why her sentenced should be commuted to time served.
"Are you sorry he's dead?" DeMentri asked.
"Oh, absolutely. Yup, yup, I am. I didn't like the things he'd done, but I can see that I wish we'd of done different things," Shirley said. "Yeah, I'm sorry he's dead. Oh my, it's wrecked this family. It's wrecked my family."
One fact cannot be ignored. One week after Skinner's clemency hearing, Shirley's daughter, Debbi Webster, contacted ABC Newschannel 20 saying that after six years, Shirley finally wanted to tell her version of events.
"Many people may look at this again, Shirley, and say 'It's her last ditch. She'll say anything to get out. She'll say I did it, I should've said it then but I'm saying this now,'" DeMentri said.
"You know, if I stay in here till I die, I'm not doing this for the last hitch. I just wanted to get it out what really truthfully happened. I just wanted to get it out," Shirley said.
But we did discover something troubling while thumbing through Skinner's clemency petition. While examining the 37 letters written on Shirley's behalf asking Gov. Quinn for mercy, we noticed 12 of those letters looked suspicious. Nine of these read exactly the same, and the other three, though different from the previous nine letters, read word for word exactly the same.
All but one of the letters are signed from people who live nearly 2,000 miles away in British Columbia, Canada. When I asked Shirley Skinner's daughter about these letters, she admitted to me that they are form letters, written by Skinner's cousin, Judith Brown.
Brown sent the form letters to her friends and asked them to sign them. Debbie Webster admits that none of the 12 people who signed these form letters had ever spoken or corresponded with Shirley Skinner, even though three of these letters say "I have known Shirley for a while and followed the case."
Where does the process with Skinner's clemency petition stand right now? There is still no decision from the governor on Shirley Skinner's clemency petition.
You've heard Shirley Skinner's version of the events of the night she shot and killed Steven Watkins. She is claiming she killed him to protect her granddaughter and great-granddaughter.
Vince asked Shirley "Do you believe if you had talked, if your family had talked and put up a self defense case, do you think you'd be [in prison]?"
"No, I don't. No I don't. If we had just had enough sense to get up and talk," Shirley said.
Wednesday is the conclusion of 6-Years Later. We'll examine the self defense theory and we'll take a closer look at Shirley's story and that of her granddaughter, Jennifer, and compare it to the evidence.
Join us on Nightside at 10 p.m.
Click here for Part One.