Steven Watkins’ murder – How a bitter divorce proceeding resulted in a crime

Steven Watkins

On November 25, 2008, Steven Watkins was shot to death at his estranged wife’s family home in Ashland, Illinois. The 32-year-old had arrived to pick up his 17-month-old daughter, Sidney, for court-ordered visitation. He and his wife, Jennifer, were in the midst of a bitter divorce and an equally unpleasant custody battle.

Jennifer Watkins became a prime suspect in the murder and the Watkins family alleged that all members of her family conspired to murder Steven. After the trial ended in May 2010, 72-year-old Shirley Skinner (Jennifer’s grandmother) was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison. She is currently serving her sentence at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln.

Shirley Skinner’s family claimed that she murdered Steven Watkins in self-defense

Shirley Skinner
Convicted murderer Shirley Skinner | Quincy Herald/Associated Press

During Shirley Skinner’s trial for the murder of her grandson-in-law Steven Watkins, her family members exercised their Fifth Amendments rights and refused to testify in the court proceedings.

After Shirley was found guilty of all charges, her son Ed claimed that she was innocent and the murder was actually committed by her granddaughter Jennifer Watkins. However, a few months after the trial, Shirley’s family members appeared before a grand jury to finally testify against her.

Debbie Webster – Skinner’s daughter and Jennifer’s mother – refuted the claims made by her brother that it was Jennifer who ‘pulled the trigger’.

“I would not let my mother [Shirley] take the rap for my daughter [Jennifer]. If my daughter did it, her butt would be in there [prison], not my mother,” said Webster.

Similarly, Shirley’s husband Kenneth testified that his wife was the real killer and said that the “public needs to know” the truth. He further dismissed Ed’s claim and said that he was simply trying to “make it look like his mom didn’t do it”.

However, the Skinner family maintains that Shirley reacted in self-defense and killed Steven to save her family, namely Jennifer and Sidney. They claim that he was violent and abusive and had sexually abused his daughter in the past. But the abuse allegations were unsubstantiated in court.

According to their testimony, Steven had knocked Shirley against the wall and was about to attack his wife and daughter. It was at that moment that Shirley took a 9mm pistol from a shelf and shot Steven from behind.

The Senate passed the “Steven Watkins Bill” in September 2012 which reinforces penalties for divorced parents violating visitation orders

The Watkins family firmly denied the accusations against Steven and believes that other members of the Skinner family should be persecuted for the murder as well. The prosecution called the murder a “family affair” that was premeditated to prevent Steven from gaining custody of Sidney.

In response to the Skinner family’s belief that Shirley should be set free, Penny Watkins (Steven’s mother) said that they only got a “partial justice” with her in prison.

“My son was never aggressive toward anyone… And in self-defense, you don’t shoot somebody in the back of the head when they’re walking away,” Penny added.

In 2014, Shirley Skinner petitioned for a clemency plea to be released from imprisonment and serve the remainder of her sentence at home, citing poor health. She reportedly suffered from a heart condition and had three strokes and a concussion while in prison.

The petition was opposed by the Watkins family. The Prison Review Board has yet to make a decision but the chances of the petition being successful are slim.

Steven’s parents, Dale and Penny Watkins won a court case that allowed them visitation rights to their granddaughter, Sidney. However, Jennifer Watkins moved to Florida and later Massachusetts with her daughter, denying the Watkins’ right to visit Sidney.

The Illinois House Committee passed the “Steven Watkins Bill” in September 2012, authorizing the courts to imprison, fine, or revoke the driver’s license of anyone unjustly interfering with or denying the visitation rights of non-custodial parents.

Jennifer Watkins and Sidney
Jennifer and Sidney Watkins | The State Journal-Register

In November 2018, Jennifer Watkins lost the custody of her daughter after failing to comply with court orders – she had already been arrested twice for violating visitation rights of the Watkins. Sidney Watkins, now 15 years old, lives with her paternal aunt Ashley Clement who became her permanent guardian after the custody battle.