by: Jessica Pieklo
For over 10 years Henry Skinner sat in prison insisting he was an innocent man. A Texas jury had convicted Skinner in the 1993 murder of his girlfriend and her two adult sons. Skinner maintained that DNA evidence found at the scene would prove his innocence and has requested, for the past decade, that Texas test that evidence, and for the past decade the Texas courts have denied these requests. And in a turn of events fit for only for Hollywood, Skinner came within 24 hours of execution before the Supreme Court granted a rare and last-minute stay so it could decide if it would hear his case. This week, they agreed to do just that.
More specifically, the Court will decide whether an inmates' requests for DNA testing can be considered as a civil rights claim. So far, federal appellate courts are split on the issue and a definitive ruling has the potential to change, perhaps permanently, criminal jurisprudence.
Skinner's case has garnered a lot of attention. It's received the attention because the evidence Skinner is asking to be tested is substantial, including DNA testing on bloody knives found at the scene, material found beneath the victim's fingernails, and rape kit samples. And that's only some of the evidence he wants tested--evidence that should be examined in any homicide case. And the case against Skinner was largely circumstantial. The state's main witness recanted her testimony and claimed she had been intimidated by prosecutors. A toxicology report done on Skinner suggests he was too intoxicated at the time to have committed the crimes, and investigators failed to consider a different suspect who actually had motive.
The case has also gained a lot of attention for some of the more technical aspects of criminal and constitutional law it implicates. Skinner filed his request for DNA testing as a Section 1983 civil rights claim, and prisoners wanting courts to order DNA testing can submit the requests in the form of habeas corpus filings or as Section 1983 civil rights claims. Currently, five circuit courts allow 1983 DNA requests, two do not, and five remain undecided on the issue. And the heart of the controversy over the Section 1983 DNA appeals is whether the prisoner is merely seeking DNA testing of evidence or whether that inmate is demanding to be released from prison. Typically, an attempt to be released from prison would be a habeas corpus case while simply seeking testing is a 1983 civil rights case.
This matters because many prisoners have had their habeas petitions denied, so a finding that a prisoner may challenge evidence via a civil rights claims could resuscitate some prisoner appeals. And if a prisoner is successful at getting DNA testing of evidence, and that evidence proves exculpatory, convictions could ultimately be thrown out.
But isn't that a good thing? Our criminal justice system, while one of the best in the world, is capable of error. This country has recently, as in just a few years ago decided it wouldn't execute juveniles, and even more recently decided that children shouldn't be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if the crime they committed didn't result in a death. As for adult offenders, the measure of the strength in that system comes from insuring a balanced and just application of our laws as we seek justice for unthinkable crimes. Capital punishment is the ultimate exercise of government power and control, shouldn't we want to make sure that every person to face that power is truly guilty before we strip them of life?