The U.S. Supreme Court has given Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner another chance at getting DNA testing done on evidence he says could prove he did not kill his live-in girlfriend and her two sons in 1993. And the case could open the door for other inmates who seek DNA evidence testing to bolster their innocence claims.
In a 6-3 opinion released today, the justices reversed the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals' denial of Skinner's federal civil rights claim requesting DNA testing. The case will now go back to a federal district court in Amarillo, which will decide whether Skinner can get access to the evidence for testing. Rob Owen, Skinner's attorney and director of the University of Texas School of Law's Capital Punishment Clinic, said they were "relieved and pleased" with the high court's decision.
Skinner was convicted in 1995 of murdering his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two mentally disabled sons, Randy Busby and Elwin Caler, in their small Pampa home. Busby was strangled and bludgeoned to death; the young men were stabbed. Skinner doesn’t deny he was in the house that New Year’s Eve in 1993 but maintains that he was too incapacitated from a mixture of vodka and codeine to carry out the attacks.
Since 2000, Skinner has asked the state to release evidence that was not examined at trial for DNA testing, including a rape kit, biological material from Twila's fingernails, sweat from a man’s jacket resembling one that another potential suspect often wore, a bloody towel and knives. Those items weren’t tested at Skinner's original trial because his attorney at the time worried the results might be incriminating. Texas courts have repeatedly denied Skinner’s requests for testing in the years since, saying that he had his chance in 1995 and contending that more tests wouldn’t prove that he wasn’t the murderer.
Minutes before Skinner was scheduled to be executed last year, the Supreme Court issued a stay. The justices heard oral arguments in October.
Edward Dawson, an attorney representing Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer, who now controls the DNA evidence in the murder case, said he was disappointed with the court's ruling. But he said that the ruling was narrow and didn't answer the central question in the case: whether Skinner has a constitutional right to additional DNA testing.
The question before the Supreme Court was not whether the DNA testing should be done but was instead about the type of lawsuit that Skinner could bring in order to access the evidence for testing. Lawyers for Switzer argued that he could only file the claim for testing as a habeas corpus lawsuit, which Texas courts had already rejected, and not as a federal civil rights claim.
But habeas claims are filed only in cases in which the evidence sought would necessarily result in the overturning of the conviction or the early release of an inmate. In Skinner's case, the justices agreed with his lawyers that testing the DNA evidence would not guarantee his release from prison. "Test results might prove exculpatory, but that outcome is hardly inevitable, for those results could also prove inconclusive or incriminating," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion. The justices ruled that Skinner could file his request as a civil rights lawsuit.
Now, Skinner must prove to the federal district court that he is entitled to DNA testing. That court will decide whether Texas courts have arbitrarily — and unconstitutionally — applied the state's 2001 law that allows post-conviction DNA testing. "The heart of the case is going to be decided in the next round of litigation in federal court," Owen said.
Dawson said he worried that the court's ruling could lead to an onslaught of inmates filing civil rights lawsuits like Skinner's claiming a constitutional right to DNA testing. It also, he said, would allow federal courts to intervene in the way Texas interprets state law on DNA testing. "This is basically opening a door for federal court lawsuits to second-guess the Texas statute," Dawson said.
When the case returns to federal district court, Dawson said he and other lawyers for Switzer would argue again that Skinner had his opportunity in 1995 to have DNA tested in his case but failed to do so. They would also continue to argue that DNA testing wouldn't change the outcome in the case.
Joseph Hoffmann, a death penalty expert and law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, described the ruling today as technical and not particularly surprising. For Skinner, the decision was just one of many hurdles the death row inmate must still overcome before he can get access to the DNA testing he seeks. "He's quite a ways from actually getting his sentence or conviction overturned," Hoffmann said.
The bigger question that the Supreme Court has not finally resolved — what minimum due process states are required to provide when it comes to DNA testing — remains unanswered, Hoffmann said. But it is possible, he said, that the Pampa murder case could return to the high court and be the one the justices use to answer that long-standing question. "There's still a long way to go," he said.
To see the Supreme Court opinion, click here.