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The Supreme Court has pried open the courthouse door just a bit for prisoners who seek access to evidence for DNA testing after their conviction. Texas, with 41 DNA exonerations, leads the nation in the number of prisoners freed by DNA testing. But its state law imposes limits on post-conviction testing. By a six-to-three vote today, the Supreme Court allowed prisoners to challenge those limits in federal court.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Hank Skinner was 45 minutes away from execution last March when the Supreme Court granted a stay to hear his case. As he put in an interview with Texas Public Radio a week before he was to die...
Mr. HANK SKINNER (Death Row Inmate): I'm dead. Well, I mean, you know, yes it's terrible. Its devastating. But, I mean, I'm doing everything I can.
TOTENBERG: Skinner was sentenced to die for the brutal killing of Twila Busby, his live-in girlfriend and her two adult developmentally disabled children. He doesn't deny he was there, but has maintained he was so drunk from a potent combination of alcohol and codeine that he could not have committed a crime that required such strength and dexterity. He's maintained that he slept through the crime and awoke to find the grisly scene.
He fled to a nearby house where police found him. His arm, shirt and pants covered in blood. He pointed to his girlfriend's uncle, an ex-con with a history of violent sexual abuse as the probable killer. But the jury didn't buy it.
Police tested some but not all of the evidence at the crime scene. They didn't test the fingernail clippings from the victims or the handle of ax used to bludgeon Busby to death. And they didn't test the bloody jacket next to the body, vaginal swabs or hairs found on the victims.
At the trial, 16 years ago, Skinner's lawyer did not ask that the evidence be tested. But since then, Skinner and a new team of lawyers have tried to get access to that material for DNA testing. Today, the Supreme Court gave Skinner new hope.
Forty-eight states, including Texas, have laws allowing for post-conviction DNA testing. But Texas and some others put limits on that access. The Texas courts have interpreted the state law to bar access to any defendant who, like Skinner, did not ask for DNA testing at trial. And until today, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to take steps to force such testing.
But today, the High Court ruled that defendants like Skinner have the right to go to federal court seeking access under the federal civil rights law.
Writing for the six-member Court majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that even if Skinner were to win in federal court that would not necessarily imply his conviction is invalid. It would simply allow him access to evidence for DNA testing; the results of which could support his claim of innocence or prove his guilt, or be inconclusive.
Defense lawyers see the ruling as a major victory. Nina Morrison is a senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project.
Ms. NINA MORRISON (Senior Staff Attorney, The Innocence Project): There had been, for many years, a couple of procedural dragons that stood in the way of prisoners trying to use the Federal Civil Rights Act to get DNA testing that could exonerate them. And today, the Supreme Court slayed those dragons.
TOTENBERG: Morrison says Skinner will still have to persuade a federal court judge that the Texas law imposes an unreasonable barrier to potentially exculpatory evidence, when it automatically bars prisoners from obtaining DNA testing that they did not ask for at trial.
Outside of Texas, such barriers have been tumbling down of late. Just last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated a provision in that state's law that barred post-conviction testing in cases where the defendant had confessed.
Nonetheless, many prosecutors were dismayed by today's Supreme Court ruling. Scott Burns is executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.
Mr. SCOTT BURNS (Executive Director, National District Attorney's Association): In the real world, people in prison have a lot of time on their hands. And they now have an entire new avenue to file who knows what.
TOTENBERG: The dissenters from today's ruling echoed that fear. Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, accused the court majority of providing a roadmap for every state prisoner to re-litigate his claim.
Replying for the majority, Justice Ginsburg called such fears warrantless. Indeed, a study that examined those parts of the country where the courts have allowed federal court claims, like Skinner's, shows only 21 such cases were filed in the years 2000 to 2008.
The Innocence Project's Nina Morrison says increasingly prosecutors just agreed to DNA testing, so cases that go to federal court are becoming relatively rare.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.