Despite the widespread acceptance of DNA testing as a powerful form of forensic evidence that can conclusively reveal guilt or innocence, many prisoners do not have the legal means to secure testing on evidence in their case.
But that could change when the Supreme Court makes a decision in Skinner v. Switzer about whether or not post-conviction DNA testing should be granted for Hank Skinner, a Texas inmate who came within 40 minutes of being executed before the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his execution.
Legislators who are opposed to broad access to post-conviction DNA testing claim such requests are a form of legal maneuvering and blame budget issues for the restrictions, reports the Washington Post.
Those in support of testing, such as Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, disagree. Watkins, the first Democrat in many years to be elected to the position, uncovered a backlog of 500 requests for DNA testing and a catalog of DNA evidence dating back several decades.
“If there’s DNA and the person is claiming his innocence, and you look at the case and there may be a possibility of it, what’s the harm?” Watkins asked during a recent interview.
“If he’s guilty, then the system worked. If he’s not, then it didn’t work, so let’s fix it. I don’t see the rationale in blocking a test where there’s a legitimate question of innocence.”
Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck agrees with Watkins and said cases needlessly drag on when prosecutors resist such requests.
“I’m still stunned by the irrational decisions of some prosecutors and law enforcement not just to do the test and find out,” he said. “It’s much cheaper and faster just to do it than to litigate.”
Skinner’s attorneys are challenging lower courts’ denial of DNA testing access on the grounds that federal civil rights law should allow a request for DNA testing that has the potential to prove innocence.
According to the Washington Post, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said that Skinner was in something of a Catch-22, because he couldn’t challenge the wrongfulness of his conviction without knowing the results of the DNA test.