WASHINGTON, March 7, 2011 -- The Supreme Court today ruled in favor of a man on death row in Texas who had sought to obtain untested DNA evidence to prove his innocence.
It was the second time the court has found in favor Henry "Hank" Skinner, who is on death row for the 1993 murder of his girlfriend and her two sons.
Skinner had completed his "last meal" of cheeseburgers, catfish and chicken thighs in March 2009 when the Supreme Court stepped in to halt his execution so it could hear his appeal.
The court ruled 6-3 today that Skinner had the right to sue state officials under federal civil rights law. The decision does not free Skinner, but allows him to argue in federal court that Texas state officials should allow him to test some DNA evidence found on the crime scene that was never tested.
Skinner argued that Texas, which allows prisoners to gain post-conviction DNA testing in limited circumstances, violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by refusing to provide for the DNA testing he requested.
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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court expresses "no opinion on the ultimate disposition" of Skinner's case, but allows the challenge to go forward in federal court.
"While the test results might prove exculpatory," she wrote, "that outcome is hardly inevitable."
Skinner was convicted in 1995 of murdering his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons. Busby was bludgeoned to death with an axe handle and her sons were stabbed.
Although some evidence at the crime scene implicated Skinner, he argued that he could not have committed the crimes because he was incapacitated by alcohol and codeine.
Skinner's trial lawyer failed to ask for additional testing during his trial, but after his conviction, Skinner spent years seeking to test some pieces of untested DNA evidence, including knives found on the premises, the axe handle, vaginal swabs, fingernail clippings and additional hair samples.
But, in Skinner's case, Texas officials refused his request, arguing he had been convicted on a combination of DNA evidence, physical evidence, his own statements and numerous witness' testimony.
Few Requests for DNA Testing
In court papers, lawyers for the State of Texas said the state had important interests in "preserving the finality of valid convictions" and "avoiding the costs associated with defending successive, meritless challenges."
Skinner had lost all state and federal appeals until today. But the decision by the Supreme Court is narrow.
Like Texas, most states allow some kind of post-conviction DNA testing. Today's decision only applies to an inmate who challenges a state's denial of further testing.
Skinner is also restricted by Supreme Court precedent that limits the federal action a prisoner can bring for DNA testing. Ginsburg wrote that the court leaves "slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process."
Skinner has offered to pay for the testing.
While Texas argued that if Skinner were to prevail, the federal courts would be flooded with requests by other inmates, Justice Ginsburg disagreed, saying she saw no evidence of "any litigation floor or even a rainfall."
Colin Starger of the Baltimore University Law School has researched post-conviction DNA testing and found that between 2000 and 2008, only 21 prisoners sought to use civil rights laws to get DNA testing.
"There is just no gathering mob of inmates seeking DNA testing in the federal courts," he said. "Prosecutors are rightly giving it to them in states courts."
Lawyers for Skinner today praised the decision.
"We look forward to making our case in federal court that Texas' inexplicable refusal to grant Mr. Skinner access to evidence for DNA testing is fundamentally unfair and cannot stand," said Robert C. Owen, clinical professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin.
Skinner told ABC's Ryan Owens last spring, "I never got to grieve for my girlfriend's loss. I woke up, my family was dead, and I am holding the bag for something I didn't do.
"I have lost 15 years of my life sitting here for something that I didn't do, and now they still want to kill me even though I have exculpatory evidence that proves my innocence. It is all something out of the 'Twilight Zone.'"