The death of 81-year-old Edith Skinner, found in her Honolulu apartment in 1989, didn’t immediately look suspicious. But a single dark hair that didn’t belong to her, found during her autopsy, helped a medical examiner determine she had been murdered, a prosecutor said.
There were also bruises on her chest, neck and jaw, prosecutor Scott Bell told jurors Monday.
Skinner “did not die of natural causes,” he said in an opening statement. “She had been strangled.”
The hair and other evidence collected were preserved. “Time passed, the trail grew cold,” Bell said.
In 2005, thanks to advances in DNA technology, a criminalist re-examining the evidence found an unknown male’s semen, which in 2011 led to a “hit” in the Hawaii state DNA database that matched the semen with Gerald Austin, whose grandmother lived in Skinner’s Kalakaua Avenue apartment building, Bell said. Austin was charged with second-degree murder in 2012.
Bell explained that then-28-year-old Austin wasn’t considered a suspect at the time and remained “hiding in plain sight for more than two decades.”
Public defender Edward Aquino said in his brief opening statement that the evidence will show that Austin had sexual contact with Skinner, but that he didn’t kill her. He said the question of who killed Skinner will remain unanswered at the end of the trial.
“The truth is stranger than fiction,” he said.
New York City-born Skinner moved to Hawaii in the 1930s and lived alone in her seventh-floor rent-subsidized apartment, Bell said. The healthy but sometimes forgetful mother of one was found on July 25, 1989, lying on her bed wearing a peach-colored nightgown but no underwear. Despite that, police didn’t immediately recognize signs of foul play, Bell said.
Her son, Stephen Skinner, of Tucson, Ariz., was the first to testify for the prosecution. He said he was living in Northern California when his mother was killed and returned to Honolulu as soon as he got word of her death, he said. In her apartment, he noticed that a cross she wore was missing.
In her youth, his mother was a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, he said. In Honolulu, she retired from managing a store.