The United States Supreme Court Monday made it easier for convicted prisoners to seek and obtain post-trial DNA testing even over the objections of law enforcement officials.
In a 6-3 ruling
authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court ruled that death row inmate
Henry Skinner could now proceed to seek crime-scene testing from Texas authorities under the federal civil rights law known as "Section 1983
was convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two children. At his trial, Skinner said he was too incapacitated by drugs and alcohol to have committed the crimes and he identified Busby's uncle as the perpetrator. There was blood and fingerprint testing done at the scene of the crime but no DNA testing before trial. In 2001, six years after Skinner's trial, Texas passed a law allowing prisoners to seek post-conviction DNA in some cases. Twice Skinner tried to invoke the Texas law to get additional testing done. Twice the state courts shot him down.
Skinner took his cause to federal court and was hours away from
being executed by lethal injection last March when the Supreme Court stepped in to halt the proceedings under way at the Texas state prison in Huntsville
. By that time, Skinner's cause had become an international one, largely because of the work performed by members of the Medill Innocence Project
at Northwestern University, which sends out teams of undergraduate investigators to look into claims of wrongdoing within the criminal justice system. When Medill investigators looked into the Skinner case, starting in 2000, they found significant problems with some of the evidence Skinner's jurors had heard at trial.
In Skinner v. Switzer
, Justice Ginsburg ruled that Skinner was entitled to press state officials for testing under Section 1983 in part because "success in his suit for DNA testing would not 'necessarily imply' the invalidity of his conviction. While test results might prove exculpatory, that outcome is hardly inevitable... results might prove inconclusive or they might further incriminate Skinner." Justice Ginsburg rejected the argument made by Texas' lawyers that allowing such claims everywhere under the federal law would generate a new flood of prisoner litigation. "In the Circuits that currently allow §1983 claims for DNA testing," she wrote, no evidence tendered by Switzer shows any litigation flood or even rainfall."
The Court's order does not guarantee that Skinner will be able to have DNA testing conducted of evidence taken from the crime scene. But it allows Skinner's defense attorneys to take a direct legal route in asking the federal courts to intercede on Skinner's behalf with Texas officials, including state court judges, who so far have refused to authorize such testing. The Court's ruling also ensures that Skinner's execution date will remain in limbo for perhaps as many as two more years -- even if he ultimately loses his new attempt to have DNA testing done.
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for himself and Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, wrote that the majority's opinion was not warranted by Court precedent and inappropriately gave convicted prisoners like Skinner what Justice Thomas called "a road map" to challenge their state court proceedings. "What prisoner would not avail himself of this additional bite at the apple," he said.
One of Skinner's attorneys, Robert C. Owen, said in the wake of the ruling: "The Court's action corrects the Fifth Circuit's fundamental misunderstanding of this important principle. As Justice Ginsburg states in her majority opinion, there is no reason to fear that lawsuits like Mr.
Skinner's will overwhelm the federal courts. The high court's ruling will simply make it possible for Mr. Skinner to vindicate his due process rights in federal court, a right long enjoyed by prisoners in other parts of the country.
We look forward to making our case in federal court that Texas's inexplicable refusal to grant Mr. Skinner access to evidence for DNA testing is fundamentally unfair and cannot stand."
Texas state attorneys did not immediately comment. Nina Morrison, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, issued this statement: "Mr. Skinner has been fighting for 10 years for access to evidence so that he could conduct DNA testing that could prove his innocence.... we hope that the district attorney will end further delay and consent to the testing."