When the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of Hank Skinner in late March, much of the media coverage focused on the particulars of Skinner’s case: The near-execution of a possibly innocent man halted by a rare last-minute reprieve.
Skinner was eating his last meal—at least what was supposed to have been his last meal—not far from the death chamber in Huntsville on March 24 when the High Court granted him a stay. Most condemned men who come that close to the execution chamber in Texas don’t live to tell about it. But Skinner was the exception. He was convicted for allegedly killing his girlfriend and her two kids. He has maintained his innocence and has long sought access to untested DNA evidence that might prove it.
The court put the execution on hold while it ponders whether to hear Skinner’s case; if it refuses, he would soon face the death chamber again. Yet the Supreme Court’s decision to spare Skinner at least temporarily had little to do with his claims of innocence. In that sense, the Skinner case is no longer just about Hank Skinner.
The issue before the court is a legal process question, one that could have a much wider impact. If Skinner wins, the case could help many other inmates obtain DNA testing.
There is some compelling evidence that Skinner may be innocent of the 1993 triple homicide in the Panhandle town of Pampa that landed him on death row. Some key evidence in the case—evidence that might reinforce his guilt or prove his innocence—or has never been submitted for DNA testing, despite numerous attempts by Skinner and his attorneys. (For more details on Skinner’s case and his long-denied requests for post-conviction DNA testing, read this story.)
But the Supreme Court isn’t really interested in any of that. Lots of inmates claim innocence and lots want post-conviction DNA testing, even the guilty ones.
The question before the court in the Skinner case is what legal process inmates should use when seeking DNA testing—a much wider issue missing from most of the media coverage of Skinner.
In Texas, inmates who want access to DNA evidence must file a writ of habeas corpus, seeking to test DNA as a path to overturning their conviction.
That all sounds good enough. But the problem is that there are quite a few restrictions on habeas petitions, according to legal scholars. For one, the statute of limitations is short. Second, you’re allowed to file only one habeas petition. So if you file once, and more DNA material surfaces later, you’re out of luck. And, third, federal courts are supposed to show deference to state courts in habeas petitions. That means, federal courts can only overturn state rulings when they’re clearly unreasonable. You could argue that the rulings by Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals are frequently unreasonable, but it’s luck of the draw whether a federal judge will see it that way.
In other words, your chances of winning a habeas claim to access DNA evidence aren’t good in Texas. And so it’s been so far for Skinner.
“It’s a significant procedural impediment to require these cases to be brought via habeas,” says University of Texas law professor Jordan Steiker, who’s written extensively on constitutional law and the death penalty.
But in other areas of the country, inmates can seek access to DNA evidence through federal civil rights law. That’s a real advantage because a civil rights petition is much less restrictive than habeas. For one, you can file multiple civil rights claims. And, two, federal courts don’t have to defer to state courts when considering a defendant’s civil rights.
Federal appeals courts are divided on the issue. Both the 4th Circuit and 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas, have ruled that requests for post-conviction DNA testing must be filed through habeas petitions. Other federal circuits have ruled it a civil rights issue. When circuit courts are divided, the Supreme Court often takes a case to settle the issue—and that’s where Skinner comes in.
If Skinner wins—and the Supreme Court rules that he can use civil rights law to obtain DNA evidence—it would open the door for many other inmates to obtain post-conviction DNA testing.
The Supreme Court is expected to dcecide by next Monday, April 19, if it will hear Skinner’s case. If it accepts the case, oral arguments would take place next fall. If it rejects his case, Skinner could face execution again in 30 days.