News 03.08.11

U.S. Supreme Court: Inmate Can Seek DNA Testing


The following blog post by Innocence Project staff attorney Nina Morrison also appeared on the

Open Society Institute blog

.

Last March, Henry “Hank” Skinner came within 45 minutes of being executed by the State of Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and took up his case.  Today, the Court issued an important ruling in favor of Skinner and others like him who seek nothing more than a chance to use modern DNA testing to prove their longstanding claims of innocence.

At issue in the case,

Skinner v. Switzer [pdf]

, was whether prisoners can use federal civil rights laws to force reluctant prosecutors to turn over DNA evidence that may clear them of the crimes for which they were convicted.  By a vote of 6-3, the Court answered “yes,” rejecting a pair of complex procedural arguments that had long been used to try and keep a number of such cases—including Skinner’s—out of court altogether. The decision won’t immediately get Skinner the DNA testing he’s been seeking for nearly ten years, which he claims will prove he is innocent of the three murders for which he was convicted by a Texas jury in 1995.  The case now gets sent back down for still more litigation—unless the Gray County prosecutor,

Lynn Switzer

, agrees to allow the testing to proceed.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling reaffirmed the important principle that the federal courthouse doors remain open in cases like these, where they may be a prisoner’s one and only remaining hope of obtaining DNA testing that proves innocence.

And fortunately, as the Supreme Court itself noted today, these kinds of drawn-out federal civil rights battles over DNA testing are quite rare in 2011.  Most DNA testing cases are settled in state court—or in no court at all, with prosecutors increasingly sharing the view that everyone wins, and no one loses, by allowing a prisoner to obtain a DNA test that could clear him or her and potentially identify who actually committed the crime in the process.

But for Hank Skinner, his long battle to get a DNA test continues—even though that testing could have been over and done in less time than it took the Supreme Court to dispose of prosecutors’ most recent procedural objections.  And in Texas, where the courts could now set another execution date at any time, his lawyers may need to continue their recent streak of victories just to keep Skinner alive long enough to see that day.  That is, unless prosecutor Switzer finally agrees—court order or no court order—to just do the right thing and allow a DNA test in this case at long last.

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