The United States Supreme Court Justices put off a decision in the Hank Skinner case. It is from Texas, a state that executes more prisoners per year than any other state.
Hank Skinner made an actual innocence claim, demanding DNA testing on other evidence gathered at the crime scene. The justices had issued a stay just before his scheduled March 24 execution, to consider whether capital inmates have a basic right to have forensic evidence reviewed.
Skinner, 47, was convicted of the the New Year’s Eve 1993 killings of his live-in girlfriend and her two sons. He strongly denies any involvement. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has received more than 8,000 letters from Skinner’s advocates urging a new trial, according to the Innocence Project and Change.org, whose members and supporters have sent the letters through their Web sites.
Prosecutors maintain that forensic evidence gathered at the scene and witness statements, point to Skinner.
The Supreme Court had scheduled the appeal for decision last Monday. The justices are now expected to again take up the Skinner case later this week, and would decide whether to hear oral arguments on the larger constitutional questions presented. They have no deadline on deciding the matter. The case is Skinner v. Switzer (09-9000).
In a previous post titled “DNA: a Civil Right” you can read more about the issue at hand.
“Prisoners who want the courts to order DNA testing can submit the requests in the form of habeas corpus filings or as Section 1983 civil rights claims. But, said Gershowitz, making habeas corpus claims for DNA testing at the federal level rarely is successful. That’s especially true when petitioners attempt to introduce new issues that the defendant’s lawyer failed to raise at trial. Those are considered forfeited. Federal courts, he said, don’t want to step in at the last minute and reverse a case, especially if the state court hadn’t had an opportunity to look at all the issues,” Gershowitz said. “They consider it the petitioner’s fault for not bringing up the issues earlier.”
The latter of course, does not make sense anymore with modern forensic technology’s progress. Decades ago we could only blood type, now we have DNA. Decades ago we needed the whole fingerprint or at least 12 points for identification purposes, now we can make an identification with less. Another example is the progress made in forensic arson detection. More on the latter can be found here in my post on the Cameron Todd Willingham’s case, click here.
At the heart of the controversy over civil rights appeals is whether the prisoner simply is seeking DNA testing of evidence OR is demanding to be released from prison. An effort to be set free typically would be presented as a habeas corpus case, Gershowitz said, while an effort only to obtain testing could be a civil rights case. The proper route for seeking testing becomes less clear when a prisoner wants to obtain DNA testing in order to be freed from prison. “It’s a matter of how formalistically you phrase the question,” Gershowitz said.
I stand by what I wrote then:
“Vidocq thinks that (post-conviction) access to DNA testing for the condemned should not hinge on how formalistically the question to the courts is phrased. It should be implied.
Cases from before the DNA era, where evidence has been kept on file, should be reviewed to see whether DNA testing is possible. If so, it should be done. Period. Full stop.
Denying DNA testing because the condemned did not do this on state level and claiming that therefore the right is forfeited, is saying that
- you do not acknowledge the progress our society has made, and
- you deny that there is a possibility that anyone involved in the case could possibly, unintentionally have made a mistake, and
- should such an unintentional mistake have been made it does not matter despite the fact that the government’s sentence is the ultimate one of death.
I cannot accept that train of thought.
If we truly want justice, and all involved in the case have worked diligently and with integrity, nobody should fear DNA testing. Should those tests than show that a mistake was made, the honourable thing to do, is to correct it. Posthumous exoneration is not an option here!
Those who swore to uphold the law and to do justice know in their hearts that denying DNA testing is ignoring the possibility that an innocent person might be executed. When faced with the ultimate sentence, no stone should be left unturned to make sure we did NOT make a mistake. Anything less is a disgrace to justice, our integrity, and the people’s respect for our professions.
I support post-conviction access to DNA for all prisoners!”
Read more about the USSC here.