Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Death-Row Inmate Seeking DNA Evidence
Henry "Hank" Skinner can challenge his conviction as a civil rights claim.
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.