Supreme Court opens way for prisoners to try to gain access to DNA evidence

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 6:44 PM

The Supreme Court opened a legal avenue Monday for prisoners to try to gain access to DNA evidence that might prove their innocence but noted that their chances at success might be slim.

The court ruled 6 to 3 in favor of Texas death row inmate Henry Skinner, who has maintained that he did not kill his girlfriend and her two sons. Skinner came within 45 minutes of being executed last spring before the Supreme Court took up his case.

There was no guarantee in the court's narrow ruling that Skinner, convicted in 1995, will ever gain access to all of the evidence recovered at the crime scene.

Texas is one of 48 states that allow at least some prisoners post-conviction access to DNA evidence, but their rules vary. More than 260 people have been exonerated after conviction through DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, which investigates cases and represents inmates.

A divided Supreme Court decided in 2009 largely to leave the decision about testing up to Congress and state legislatures. It ruled that the convicted do not have a constitutional right to testing but left a narrow opening for those trying to prove that a state's laws governing access to DNA are inadequate.

Skinner's attorneys tested that opening by suing Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer, saying the decision to withhold DNA testing in his case violated his federal civil rights.

Monday's court majority said a federal court could consider that claim.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that court precedents allow civil rights challenges if the result would not "necessarily imply" the invalidity of their convictions.

"Success in his suit for DNA testing would not 'necessarily imply' the invalidity of his conviction," Ginsburg wrote of Skinner's suit. "While test results might prove exculpatory, that outcome is hardly inevitable. . . . Results might prove inconclusive, or they might further incriminate Skinner."

Ginsburg seemed to indicate it might be difficult for Skinner to ultimately prevail and win access to DNA evidence. The court's 2009 ruling "left slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process," Ginsburg wrote.

Skinner's attorney, Robert C. Owen, welcomed the court's decision: "We look forward to making our case in federal court that Texas's inexplicable refusal to grant Mr. Skinner access to evidence for DNA testing is fundamentally unfair and cannot stand."

Groups that represented prisoners called on Switzer to test the remaining evidence instead of continuing to fight Skinner's request. Switzer did not return phone calls after the decision. But when the Supreme Court accepted the case, Switzer said Skinner had has "plenty of opportunity to show that additional testing could prove his innocence, but he could not show that."

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