The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Monday, March 7 that prisoners may bring a civil rights claim to try to obtain DNA evidence and assert their innocence, handing a victory to Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner who is represented by the University of Texas School of Law's Capital Punishment Clinic.
The decision in Skinner v. Switzer is also the latest in an unbroken string of victories the clinic's faculty and students have enjoyed at the Supreme Court since 2004. Students played a major role in preparing Clinical Law Professor Rob Owen, a co-director of the clinic and Skinner's attorney, for oral argument before the Court last October.
"We are very pleased with today's decision by the Supreme Court, holding that Mr. Skinner may invoke the protections of the federal Civil Rights Act in his effort to obtain access to evidence for DNA testing," Owen said. "The Court's action corrects the Fifth Circuit's fundamental misunderstanding of this important principle. As Justice Ginsberg states in her majority opinion, there is no reason to fear that lawsuits like Mr. Skinner's will overwhelm the federal courts. The high court's ruling will simply make it possible for Mr. Skinner to vindicate his due process rights in federal court, a right long enjoyed by prisoners in other parts of the country.
"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."
The decision reverses an appeals court ruling, sending the case back to district court in Amarillo. Owen said he expects the district court to set a schedule for the expeditious resolution of Skinner's due process claims after the Supreme Court issues its official mandate on the case next month.
Skinner, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for murdering his girlfriend and her two adult sons in their home in the Panhandle town of Pampa, Texas, on New Year's Eve 1993. For 10 years, Skinner has sought access to certain evidence from the crime scene for the purpose of performing forensic DNA testing he says could clear him. Owen, with lawyers from the firm of Skadden Arps, represented Skinner in his bid to use a civil rights statute (42 U.S.C. § 1983) to gain access to that evidence.
This case presented another opportunity for students in the Capital Punishment Clinic to play a substantial role in litigation at the nation's highest court. It was the fourth time in recent years the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the Capital Punishment Clinic was involved. Students from the clinic also traveled to Washington D.C. last October to watch Owen argue the case before the Justices.
The Supreme Court issued Monday's decision in the Skinner case with Justices Ginsburg, Roberts, Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan in the majority. Justices Thomas, Kennedy and Alito dissented. Text of the decision (PDF) is available on the U.S. Supreme Court's Web site.