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Supreme Court stays execution of condemned Texas inmate seeking DNA test

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Wednesday granted [order, PDF] a temporary stay of execution for convicted murderer Henry "Hank" Skinner [advocacy website] who requested DNA testing be conducted in his case to prove his innocence. The court granted the stay just one hour prior to Skinner's execution and will now decide whether to grant certiorari. Skinner is requesting access to DNA testing based on a civil rights claim under § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 [42 USC § 1983 text] instead of a federal habeas corpus challenge. In his petition, Skinner argued that lower courts are unclear on whether a DNA access claim may be granted under civil rights law or only under a habeas challenge following the Court's decision [text, PDF] in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report]. The court is expected to make its decision to hear the case within the next few weeks. The French ambassador to the US had also pressed for a stay of execution [AFP report] for Skinner, who is married to a French anti-death penalty activist.

Skinner was convicted in 1995 of killing his girlfriend, Twila Jean Busby, and her two adult sons. Skinner has maintained his innocence saying he was not capable of committing the murders because of the amount of drugs and alcohol in his system on the day of the murders. While the prosecutors in the case did rely on some DNA evidence in the case, Skinner's attorneys argue they were selective in the tests they conducted. In District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, the court held that a defendant does not have the right to obtain post-conviction access to the state’s biological evidence in order to do DNA testing. The decision involved a claim for access under section 1983, but the majority rejected that approach saying it "would take the development of rules and procedures in this area out of the hands of legislatures and state courts shaping policy in a focused manner and turn it over to federal courts applying the broad parameters of the Due Process Clause."

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