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Supreme Court: Death-row inmate can seek DNA testing

HOUSTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave a glimmer of hope to a death row inmate in Texas who wants to test crime-scene evidence that he says may show he is innocent.

The court’s narrow, 6-3 ruling means that Hank Skinner, who was about an hour away from execution when the Supreme Court intervened last year, will not be put to death soon while his legal case continues.

But the decision will not necessarily result in Skinner winning the right to perform genetic testing on evidence found at the scene of the triple murder for which he received the death penalty.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said prison inmates may use a federal civil rights law, 42 U.S.C. 1983, rather than a habeas petition, to seek DNA testing that was not performed before their conviction. Lower federal courts had dismissed Skinner’s claims at an early stage, although other federal judges have allowed similar lawsuits to go forward in other parts of the country.

Ginsburg said it is by no means clear that Skinner can prevail in his lawsuit and actually gain access to the evidence for testing. Even if he does win in court, she said, testing the evidence “may prove exculpatory, inculpatory or inconclusive.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, said Skinner’s legal claims should have been cut off.

Robert Owen, Skinner’s lawyer, praised the decision. “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,” Owen said.

Skinner, 48, was convicted of killing his girlfriend and her two adult sons on New Year’s Eve 1993.

Police found him hiding in a closet in the home of a woman he knew, about three hours after the bodies were discovered. He was splattered with the blood of at least two of the victims. A trail of blood led police from the bodies to his hiding place, a few blocks away. He acknowledged being inside the house in the Texas Panhandle where the killings took place.

But other evidence was not tested at the time of Skinner’s trial, on the advice of his lawyer. The untested material includes vaginal swabs taken from the girlfriend, Twila Jean Busby, at the time of her autopsy, fingernail clippings, a knife found on the porch of Busby’s house and a second knife found in a plastic bag in the house, a towel with the second knife and a jacket next to Busby’s body,

Skinner and his new defense team say that evidence could exonerate him. The state says Skinner is trying to game the system to delay his execution.

Like almost every other state, Texas has a law that allows prisoners to do DNA testing on evidence, long after their conviction. Skinner tried and failed twice to invoke the state law to get at the evidence.

He then filed the federal lawsuit, saying that the state had deprived him of his rights by withholding access to the evidence.

The case is Skinner v. Switzer, 09-9000.