Supreme Court Weighs Giving Convict Access to DNA Evidence

Death row inmate, spared once by court, says new evidence could set him free.

ByABC News
October 13, 2010, 3:14 PM

Oct 13, 2010— -- 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.