Justices rule for death row inmate who wants DNA testing

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The Supreme Court gave a Texas death row inmate who came within an hour of being executed a new right to seek DNA evidence from the crime scene that he says could prove him innocent.

The 6-3 decision opens a narrow window for prisoners to sue and obtain DNA evidence that went untested at the time of their trials.

The Innocence Project in New York says 266 prisoners have been freed because of DNA evidence since 1989, including 17 inmates on death row. Though all states permit prisoners to obtain new tests of evidence under certain circumstances, prosecutors have often resisted.


The ruling offers a glimmer of hope to Hank Skinner. Last March, he was scheduled to be put to death for the murder of his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons. Skinner maintained he was innocent, even though his blood was found on one victim’s clothes and his bloody palm prints were found throughout the house.

Skinner insisted another man — Busby’s uncle — committed the brutal killings while Skinner was drunk and asleep on the couch on New Year’s Eve 1993.

While in prison, he sought DNA testing of two knives, an ax handle, a dish towel, fingernail clippings and hair samples that were found near the victims. None of this material was tested before or after his trial. It remains in police files.

Dist. Atty. Lynn Switzer not only refused to permit the testing but spent a decade fighting the issue in court. She argued Skinner’s defense lawyer chose not to have the extra evidence tested. She also said the proof of Skinner’s guilt was overwhelming.

The Texas courts and federal judges rejected all of Skinner’s appeals and cleared the way for his execution. However, students from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism looked into Skinner’s case and raised doubts about his conviction.

With time running out, a University of Texas law professor filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and argued that Skinner was being denied his right to due process of law. While Texas by law allowed new DNA testing, Skinner was denied the opportunity because his trial lawyer chose not to ask for it.


A federal judge and the U.S. court of appeals in New Orleans quickly tossed out his civil rights claim, but the Supreme Court revived it in Skinner vs. Switzer.

“We hold that a post-conviction claim for DNA testing is properly pursued” in a civil rights suit, said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She emphasized that the ruling was narrow and concerned only situations where the state denied all testing of available evidence.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed with Ginsburg. The dissenters were Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The district attorney will continue to fight the testing, said her lawyer, Mark D. White.

“The Supreme Court did not order the DNA testing. So, we will start over again before a federal judge here in Amarillo,” White said. “If we were to go along with this claim, there would be no end.”