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Skinner v. Switzer

posted by DNA Identifiers @ 1:38 PM
Thursday, December 2, 2010

On Wednesday October 13th the Supreme Court justices asked about an hour’s worth of questions regarding Henry Skinner’s request that a Texas district attorney turn over all existing DNA evidence in the triple murder he was convicted of in 1995.

In an interview Skinner said, “Turn over the evidence and test it, and let the chips fall where they may. If I’m innocent I go home. If I’m guilty, I die. What’s so hard about that?”

The justices, the two attorneys representing Skinner, and district attorney Lynn Switzer referred to around a half-dozen Supreme Court precedents in addition to the difference between a civil rights claim, using federal habeas law to attack a wrongful conviction, the respect owed state courts when the justices are interpreting state statutes and even the definition of the word “necessarily.”  The issue that they never came close to was the question of whether DNA evidence that might prove a person guilty or innocent should always be available to the convicted.

This is because in a 2009 decision involving an Alaska man who was convicted of kidnapping and rape, the court ruled 5 to 4 that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to DNA evidence. The court did however acknowledged that such DNA testing had an “unparalleled ability” to separate the guilty from the innocent, the majority of the court said that the decision on when prisoners have the right to such DNA testing are best left to state legislatures and Congress.  While this appears to be a roadblock to prisoner’s requests for additional DNA testing the justices left a small loophole.  The Justices allowed that  for civil rights claims, if the prisoner could show that he was denied due process to obtaining evidence that could lead to his exoneration they should be allowed additional DNA testing.

That is the argument that Skinner and his attorneys are seeking to use. Skinner has always proclaimed his innocence, despite acknowledging that he was in the home during the brutal killings of his girlfriend and her two children on New Year’s Eve 1993. Skinner has always claimed that he was passed out on what tests later showed to be a near-lethal combination of codeine and alcohol and that he could not have overpowered and killed the three in his condition. He said he woke to find them dead; the blood on his clothes came from examining them.

When the trial occurred prosecutors tested some of the DNA evidence from the home.  They did not test material from a rape kit, or skin cells under Busby’s fingernails, or hairs and other evidence from the scene. This is the evidence that Skinner is claiming will prove his innocence.  At the time it seems a strategic decisions was made by both the prosecutors and the defense.  Prosecutors did not feel they needed the extra evidence.  While Skinner’s lawyer feared more testing would only make the case against his client stronger.

After the trial Skinner and his supporters, including Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project, have pointed out that Busby had expressed fear of her uncle,  Skinner contends that the now deceased uncle is the possible killer, and Skinner states that he always wanted the evidence tested.

Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing was based solely on technical arguments. Skinner’s attorney told the court that the only issue was whether Skinner could use the federal courts to press his civil rights claim to the evidence. He cited a previous court ruling that gave prisoners access to some evidence as long as the claim would not “necessarily imply the invalidity of a conviction or sentence.”

“I would interpret his complaint is what he wants is the DNA. He thinks it’s going to be exculpatory. He doesn’t know that till he gets it,” stated Justice Stephen G. Breyer.  While Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said “In the real world, a prisoner who wants access to DNA evidence is interested in overturning his conviction,” and so his request for the DNA could not be separated from his attempt to get off death row.

Gregory Coleman, who represented district attorney Switzer, agreed with Justice Samel A. Alito Jr. stating that, “this is an attack on the criminal proceeding.”  Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan both pointed out that this places Skinner in a Catch-22, because he couldn’t challenge the wrongfulness of his conviction without knowing the results of the DNA test.

At this time there has been no ruling on the case.

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