Supreme Court allows suit to force DNA testing in Texas appeal
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The Supreme Court on Monday made it easier for inmates to sue for access to DNA evidence that could prove their innocence.
The legal issue in the case was tightly focused and quite preliminary: Was Hank Skinner, a death row inmate in Texas, entitled to sue a prosecutor there under a federal civil rights law for refusing to allow testing of DNA evidence? By a 6-to-3 vote, the court said yes, rejecting a line of lower-court decisions that had said the only proper procedural route for such challenges was a petition for habeas corpus.
In her opinion for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized the narrowness of the ruling. Allowing Mr. Skinner to sue, she said, was not the same thing as saying he should win his suit.
Justice Ginsburg added that a 2009 decision, District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, had severely limited the kinds of claims prisoners seeking DNA evidence can make. The Osborne decision, she wrote, “left slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process.”
The case decided Monday, Skinner v. Switzer, No. 09-9000, arose from three killings on New Year’s Eve in 1993…Prosecutors tested some but not all of the evidence from the crime scene. Some of it pointed toward Mr. Skinner, who never denied that he was present, but some did not. His trial lawyer, wary of what additional testing might show, did not ask for it.
In the years since, prosecutors have blocked Mr. Skinner’s requests to test blood, fingernail scrapings and hair found at the scene.
In 2001, Texas enacted a law allowing post-conviction DNA testing in limited circumstances. State courts in Texas rejected Mr. Skinner’s requests under the law, saying he was at fault for not having sought testing earlier. Mr. Skinner then sued in federal court under a federal civil rights law known as Section 1983, saying the Texas law violated his right to due process.
Justice Ginsburg wrote that a Section 1983 suit was available in cases where the relief sought by the inmate would not “necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.” Since there was no telling whether the results of the tests Mr. Skinner sought would establish his guilt, clear him or be inconclusive, she wrote, the suit was proper.
The reality of most jurisdictions is that judges and prosecutors always hate to face an appeal – especially in the era when scientific tests are becoming practical and available which might prove those they convicted – to be innocent.