U.S. Supreme Court Allows Texas Death Row Inmate to Continue Pursuit of DNA Testing

On March 7, the U.S. Supreme Court held (6-3) that Hank Skinner, a Texas death row inmate who came within an hour of execution in 2010, can challenge the state’s refusal to test crucial DNA evidence from his case in federal court. Skinner has always maintained his innocence of the 1993 murders of his girlfriend and her two sons and requested that Texas perform DNA testing on key pieces of evidence that might point to another suspect. At issue in Skinner v. Switzer, No. 09-9000, was whether Skinner was barred from independently raising such a challenge under the federal Civil Rights Act (§1983) because he was actually appealing his conviction. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Measured against our prior holdings, Skinner has properly invoked §1983. 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 …” Skinner’s attorney, Robert C. Owen, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Texas at Austin, welcomed the Court’s ruling, noting that the denial of DNA testing in Skinner’s case is a rare occurrence: “[T]here 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.”

Justice Ginsburg was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.

(Skinner v. Switzer, No. 09-9000, U.S. Mar. 7, 2011). See Supreme Court and Innocence.