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Supreme Court confronts conflicting laws on post-conviction DNA testing

James Woodard sits with Carolyn Hodo at a coffee shop in Dallas. Woodard was exonerated and released from prison after 27 years with the help of DNA testing that proved he was wrongfully convicted of killing his girlfriend.
James Woodard sits with Carolyn Hodo at a coffee shop in Dallas. Woodard was exonerated and released from prison after 27 years with the help of DNA testing that proved he was wrongfully convicted of killing his girlfriend. (For The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 12:29 AM

DALLAS - The news brings almost routine stories about wrongfully convicted prisoners who are exonerated by DNA testing, but they often have traveled widely divergent paths to freedom.

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In some states, only prisoners facing execution have the right to DNA testing to try to prove their innocence. In others, anyone who pleaded guilty is barred from asking for the testing. In the patchwork of legislation passed by Congress and 48 states, even individual prosecutors can carry great weight.

The Supreme Court is again considering the tangled legal questions that accompany the issue in the case of Henry Skinner, who says DNA evidence could settle the question of whether he murdered his girlfriend and her two developmentally disabled adult sons.

Prosecutors in Gray County, Tex., where Skinner was convicted, are convinced that he is guilty and say he passed up a chance to test DNA evidence at his trial 15 years ago. Texas courts said he didn't meet the requirements of a state law that grants DNA testing to some convicts. Federal courts said they had no proper role in second-guessing Texas.

Skinner came within 45 minutes of being strapped down for lethal injection before the Supreme Court stayed his execution to hear his case. The justices' decision could come at any time.

The oral arguments in Skinner v. Switzer traversed the legal landscape of habeas corpus reviews and federal civil rights laws,but bypassed the question most nonlawyers would have: Why not just test the evidence?

If Skinner's crime had occurred in Dallas, instead of 350 miles northwest, the testing probably would have been done by now.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, probably the country's most famous advocate of allowing access to DNA, set up a special unit for that purpose soon after taking office in 2007. Since then, 21 men convicted in Dallas have been exonerated by DNA testing.

"If there's DNA and the person is claiming his innocence, and you look at the case and there may be a possibility of it, what's the harm?" Watkins asked during a recent interview.

"If he's guilty, then the system worked. If he's not, then it didn't work, so let's fix it. I don't see the rationale in blocking a test where there's a legitimate question of innocence."

But those questions are a matter of deep disagreement. Those opposed to wide access to testing point to the expense for budget-strapped states and the potential for an unending cycle of legal maneuvering.

"If defendants are allowed to 'game the system,' then we will never be able to rely on the finality of the judgments entered in their cases," Lynn Switzer, the Gray County district attorney, said in a statement.


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