Supreme Court Weighs Giving Convict Access to DNA Evidence

The Supreme Court heard arguments today about whether it should come to the aid of a Texas man on death row for a second time, this time by allowing him access to DNA evidence that he hopes will prove him innocent.

Hank Skinner has been on Texas' death row since 1995, convicted of bludgeoning to death his girlfriend and stabbing to death her two mentally disabled sons on New Year's Eve in 1993. His lawyers argue that police at the time did not test for DNA all of the physical evidence, including blood found on the murder weapons.

Forty-eight states have rules on the books allowing for DNA testing of evidence following a conviction. Last year the court ruled that convicts had some recourse for DNA testing, but only in special and limited circumstances.

Today's hearing hinges on whether Texas law, which has denied Skinner the opportunity to seek new DNA testing, too narrowly opens the door for prisoners to seek additional testing after they have been convicted.

"Our argument is that the Texas statute was enacted to grant, essentially, protection to a class of inmates who were wrongfully convicted and can prove that with DNA evidence," Skinner's lawyer Robert Owen told the court. "[Texas] then interprets that statute in a way that needlessly chops a bunch of those inmates out."

Owen called the Texas ruling "arbitary" and that it did not take into consideration "the likelihood of innocence."

In March 2009, just 45 minutes before he was to enter the death chamber and moments after completing his last meal of cheeseburgers, catfish and chicken thighs, Skinner was subject to one of the rarest writs in U.S. law – an eleventh hour stay of execution by the Supreme Court.

Prior to the trial 16 years ago, the prosecution ordered DNA testing on some, but not all of the evidence. Skinner's then-lawyer had the opportunity at trial to demand more testing, but chose not to.

Skinner has never denied he was at the crime scene. He has instead insisted that he was "out cold," too drunk from a night of binging and drug use to have committed the murders.

Skinner says the real killer was his girlfriend's uncle, Robert Donnell, whom Skinner claims was a violent man who made unwanted sexual advances towards the woman on the night of her death. Donnell was killed in a car crash in 1997.

In a jailhouse interview with Skinner in April, one month after he received the stay, he told ABC News his lawyer did not seek further testing because he did not want to give the prosecution more ammunition in case it came back positive.

"The lawyer's explanation to me at the time was, under the code of criminal procedure… the district attorney has a duty to exclude as well as convict. He said: 'If I were the district attorney I would test all of this evidence, but I am not going to test it because I am your attorney and I am not going to get you convicted if something happens," Skinner said.

"[If this] could happen to me it could happen to you, your mother, your brother, your son your uncle. It erodes faith in the judiciary, it erodes faith in the district attorney's office. They just do not want to admit they made a mistake no matter what," he said.

In 2000, Skinner's case was picked up by a group of students from the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Led by their teacher, David Protess, students had already helped win stays of execution for 11 inmates on death row in Illinois by the time they took up Skinner's case.

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