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Can Death Row Inmates Get New DNA Tests?

October 13, 2010 at 5:07 PM EST
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The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in case involving a Texas death-row inmate who wanted to gain access to additional crime scene evidence for DNA testing. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal explains.
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JIM LEHRER: Now to today’s U.S. Supreme Court argument in a high-profile death penalty case. Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: Last March, less than an hour before Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner was due to die by lethal injection, the Supreme Court stayed his execution. Today, Skinner asked the court to help him gain access to additional DNA evidence from the triple murder crime scene for testing.

Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal” was in the courtroom for the arguments, and she joins us now. Hello again, Marcia.

So first of all, tell us about Hank Skinner. What’s he convicted of? It was pretty gruesome, wasn’t it?

MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: It was. It took place on New Year’s Eve, 1993. Skinner’s girlfriend was bludgeoned to death, and her two adult, mentally disabled sons were stabbed to death. Skinner, who’s always maintained his innocence, said that, at the time, he was passed out on the sofa, the result of combining alcohol and drugs.

He was arrested. The police collected a lot of biological evidence. They tested blood on his clothes, found — and found that it was conclusive with his blood, the girlfriend’s blood, and one of the son’s — went to trial, was convicted of all three murders, and sentenced to death.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he wants access to the other evidence that was on the victims’ bodies. Why wasn’t — first of all, why wasn’t that all tested at the time?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, first of all, the prosecutors felt that they had sufficient evidence from what they did test to convict him.

But, secondly and probably most importantly, Skinner’s defense attorney made a decision not to have all the evidence tested, because he feared it might come back showing that his client was guilty or was inconclusive and didn’t really clear his client.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this case has been — and there are a lot of Texas death row cases, as we know, but this one has attracted a lot of attention. Just in the last few months, you had “TIME’ magazine write a big essay about it, Politics Daily.

Why has this case attracted attention?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think, first of all, Margaret, it goes back almost a decade, when a group of students from the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University, who have been very successful in helping to exonerate Illinois death row inmates, took on Skinner’s claims of innocence.

They went down to Texas, investigated. When they came back, they weren’t convinced that he was guilty and they weren’t convinced he was innocent. But they did raise the question about all this other evidence that was never tested.

Newspapers started writing about it. The anti-death penalty and civil rights community that has worked very hard to get states to enact DNA testing laws also saw this case as very important.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, at the time he was convicted, Texas, like most states, didn’t even have a law governing at what point a — someone already convicted can get access to DNA evidence.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: And then — but then Texas did enact something. How did that play into this case? And — and, since they have one, why are they refusing to let Skinner or Skinner’s experts test everything?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, first, I should point out that the DA, the district attorney in this case, as a result of media pressure back in 2001, did test some additional evidence, but he didn’t test specifically seven or eight pieces of evidence that Skinner believes would show or could show that he’s innocent.

MARGARET WARNER: Or at least that someone else might have done it.

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly. He always felt that there was another man, a relative who had been after his girlfriend who may have done this. He wanted testing of vaginal swabs that were done in a rape kit on his girlfriend, testing of knives that were likely to have been used in the attacks on her sons.

But, in 2001, Texas enacted a post-conviction DNA testing law, and Skinner immediately moved for the evidence. These laws have certain limitations on them. And courts in Texas found that Skinner didn’t meet the requirements.

One of the requirements is to show that you were not at fault that the evidence hadn’t been tested at trial. And the court said he was at fault, because his lawyer made a decision not to have it tested.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Skinner’s now saying to the court, “I’m filing a lawsuit against this DA, a civil rights lawsuit.” On what basis did his lawyer in the court today argue for — for going that route and for doing this? And how did the justices respond?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, first of all, he’s saying that, the way the lower courts have applied and interpreted the Texas DNA law violates Skinner’s due process rights. This is a civil rights claim: We should be able to use the civil rights lawsuit to pursue the DNA evidence now.

The justices seemed somewhat sympathetic to him. Justice Sotomayor, though, I think brought up one of the key points here. She asked him to respond to critics that, if they say, OK, you win, they’re going to be inundated with civil rights lawsuits by prisoners, not only looking for DNA evidence, but in disputes with other kinds of discovery in their trials.

MARGARET WARNER: And then the other side, how did that go, with the lawyer for the state of Texas and the justices’ reaction?

MARCIA COYLE: Texas’ lawyer is saying Skinner is gaming the system; he has used everything that is available in the law to get this evidence; he has failed; he’s looking for multiple bites; he should use the only avenue that’s been available to him, and he’s failed in that avenue.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning the typical way a convict will come to the court and say, I’m actually innocent and you should just free me?

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: So called habeas?

MARCIA COYLE: A habeas petition.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

MARCIA COYLE: Skinner’s lawyer says, we’re not asking him — asking for you to free Skinner. We just want the evidence.

MARGARET WARNER: And, very quickly, what’s the truth of this, as far as you can determine, in terms of, if Skinner were to win this, would it open a floodgate?

MARCIA COYLE: Skinner’s lawyer claims there was a recent study that shows that, in a few circuit court areas, jurisdictions, where the courts have allowed these types of suits, there have really only been about 21 cases.

So, he says there won’t be a great impact. Texas disagrees and sees multiple lawsuits undermining finality of state court judgments.

MARGARET WARNER: Marcia, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.