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Supreme Court agrees to hear death row inmate’s civil rights case

The Supreme Court said on Monday that it would review a Texas death row inmate’s request for access to DNA evidence that his lawyers claim could exonerate him, setting up a case that could dramatically redefine defendants’ rights under the Constitution.

Attorneys for the inmate, Hank Skinner, have argued that prosecutors violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment by denying him access to evidence recovered from the crime scene. Skinner was found guilty in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend and her two sons, but has maintained his innocence.

Skinner’s lawyers say vaginal swabs taken from the victim during the autopsy, as well as fingernail clippings, two knives and several other household items recovered from the scene were never tested, according to The Texas Tribune:

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Mr. Skinner’s appeal,” said Rob Owen, one of Skinner’s attorneys. “That decision represents the necessary first step to our eventually obtaining the DNA testing that Mr. Skinner has long sought. We look forward to the opportunity to persuade the Court that if a state official arbitrarily denies a prisoner access to evidence for DNA testing, the prisoner should be allowed to challenge that decision in a federal civil rights lawsuit.”

Several lower courts have already weighed in on the case, with some ruling that Skinner was not entitled to review evidence investigators had not already tested before the trial. But in March the Supreme Court granted a last-minute stay of Skinner’s execution. In their complaint requesting that stay, Skinner’s lawyers detailed their attempts to secure access to crime scene evidence through Texas state procedures, and said arguing for Skinner’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment was, in effect, a last resort:

By refusing to release the biological evidence for testing, and thereby preventing [Skinner] gaining access to exculpatory evidence that could demonstrate he is not guilty of capital murder, [prosecutors have] deprived [Skinner] of his liberty interests in utilizing state procedures to obtain reversal of his conviction and/or to obtain a pardon or reduction of his sentence, all in violation of his right to Due Process of Law under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The Supreme Court decision could also reignite the broader debate over the death penalty. Skinner’s case has become a rallying cry for many opponents of capital punishment, who say DNA evidence has exonerated hundreds of death row inmates who would have otherwise been wrongly executed.

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