The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this morning in the Hank Skinner case isn’t really about Hank Skinner.
The High Court’s decision, by a 6-3 majority, will allow Skinner to petition a federal court for DNA testing on evidence in his case. Skinner, who sits on Texas death row and came within hours of execution last year, hopes DNA testing will confirm his claims that he didn’t commit the gruesome 1993 triple homicide for which he was convicted.
But the ruling has much wider implications. It opens a new avenue for many inmates to obtain post-conviction DNA testing of evidence in their cases.
The legal issue before the Supreme Court had little to do with the details of Skinner’s innocence claims. Rather, it was about legal process.
Until now, Texas inmates who wanted access to DNA evidence had to file a writ of habeas corpus. In siding with Skinner, the justices ruled that prisoners can also use federal civil rights claims to obtain evidence for DNA testing.
Why does that matter?
As I wrote last year, when the Supreme Court took the case, “[T]here 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.”
Many of those issues have been mitigated now that the Supreme Court has ruled that inmates can pursue claims for DNA evidence with habeas petitions and under federal civil rights law.
That clears the legal barriers for Skinner to pursue his innocence claims. But it also opens a path for many other inmates who, for whatever reason, can’t file habeas petitions.
In short, many prisoners will have access to DNA testing that will confirm or overturn their guilt. It’s another way to catch mistakes in the system. And that can’t be a bad thing.