High court's ruling on DNA tests is a lifeline for inmates

Monday, March 7, 2011; 7:39 PM

HENRY W. SKINNER was on death row in Texas and less than an hour away from being executed when the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case. On Monday, the justices threw Mr. Skinner and others like him a lifeline.

Mr. Skinner was convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend and her two grown children. A district attorney's office in Texas presented physical evidence and eyewitness testimony and performed DNA tests, some of which implicated Mr. Skinner and others that proved inconclusive. But prosecutors did not test key pieces of evidence, including a knife that appeared to have been used in one of the murders and the girlfriend's fingernail clippings, which could contain the killer's DNA.

Texas is among the states that allow convicts to seek post-conviction DNA tests. But two state courts turned down Mr. Skinner's requests; he then pressed his case in the federal system. The justices were asked to determine whether he was legally entitled to do so. In a majority opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by five others, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. , the justices concluded that he was.

Justice Ginsburg, in addressing the concerns of critics, noted that there is no evidence that allowing these challenges would lead to a "litigation flood or even rainfall." And she pushed back against the assertion that prisoners would abuse the federal process to illegitimately challenge their convictions. In reality, the court's decision provides prisoners like Mr. Skinner only with a chance to convince a trial judge that additional testing is needed. There is no guarantee that he will prevail and no assurances that the results will help Mr. Skinner; additional testing, after all, could bolster the prosecution's case or prove inconclusive.

But the decision represents more than a victory for Mr. Skinner and other prisoners, especially those on death row. It serves the interests of justice in ensuring that innocents are not punished. We oppose the death penalty, but if it is to be imposed it should be done with a heightened level of certainty that the person being punished is guilty of the crime.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company