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Supreme Court Clears Hurdle to DNA Test for Condemned Inmate

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March 8, 2011

Yesterday, the Supreme Court found that Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner has the right to pursue testing of DNA evidence that could prove his innocence. Among the outstanding items that still have not been DNA tested: at least three possible murder weapons and a rape kit. SCOTUSblog reported yesterday:

While the state in prosecuting Skinner for the three murders had made use of some of the DNA evidence found at the scene, Skinner’s lawyers have been trying for ten years to get access to the untested evidence — including vaginal swabs and finger nail clippings from the murdered woman, blood and hairs found on a jacket near the woman’s body, and biological evidence found on knives and a dish towel discovered at the scene. At the trial, his defense lawyer did not ask that these be tested; Skinner would later make his challenge in post-conviction pleas.

Yesterday’s decision means that death row inmates may bring a federal civil rights lawsuit to get evidence that was not DNA tested before or during their state criminal trial. Last March, Skinner came within 24 hours of being executed before the Supreme Court granted a last-minute stay so it could hear the case.

Brian Stull, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said in response to yesterday’s decision:

“When state courts refuse to afford death-row inmates the opportunity to have biological evidence in the state’s possession tested for DNA which could prove innocence, inmates have no other alternative but to go to the federal courts with a civil rights action. The court today holds that federal courts remain open for these claims of life-and-death significance.

We applaud this holding. But while the court’s decision today will help Texas inmate Henry Skinner to pursue his claim of innocence, our criminal justice system still has far too many cracks to ensure that no innocent person will be executed. Our system is far too unreliable to allow states to continue meting out this irreversible punishment.”

Skinner’s case is far from over. His case now goes to a federal district court, which will consider a list of other arguments Skinner’s prosecutors have urged as a basis to deny testing.

Isn’t enough enough? As the Washington Post recently asked: “Why not just test the evidence?”

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