Thursday, October 21, 2010

SCOTUS Hears Arguments on Death Row and DNA

Henry Skinner has always maintained his innocence, despite acknowledging that he was present during the brutal 1993 New Year's Eve murders of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult, mentally disabled sons in the Pampa, Texas, home they shared. Skinner was discovered hiding in the closet of a former girlfriend, in bloody clothes and with a gash on his hand, according to the Washington Post.

Skinner contends that during the killings, he was passed out on what tests later showed to be a near-lethal combination of codeine and alcohol and that he could not have overpowered and killed the three in his condition. He said he woke to find them dead; the blood on his clothes came from examining them, the Post reported.

I wrote about the Skinner case earlier this year for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Skinner was within one hour of being executed in March when the Supreme Court issued a stay and decided to hear his case.

According to the Post, the drama was missing from the recent oral argument before the High Court. Skinner's attorney Robert Owen told the court that the only issue was whether Skinner could use the federal courts to press his civil rights claim to the DNA evidence. He cited a previous court ruling that gave prisoners access to some evidence as long as the claim would not "necessarily imply the invalidity of a conviction or sentence."

I examined the U.S. Supreme Court decision in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, 557 U.S. ____ (2009) in the above reference Pennsylvania Law Weekly article. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Alaska to turn over the evidence requested by Osborne. The matter was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court never got to the issue of Heck and the right to challenge a conviction through a 1983 claim.

Instead, the court focused on Osborne's contention that, pursuant to the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, he was entitled to retest DNA through a new method at his own expense. The court refused to recognize a free-standing due process right to DNA evidence, separate from a claim seeking vindication.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote for the majority: "Moreover to suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what has been a prompt and considered legislative response by congress and the states."

Skinner now brings before the court the same issue that the court failed to address last year — can a convicted prisoner seek DNA testing through 42 U.S.C. 1983 or only through habeas corpus?

This presents a difficult manipulation of legal remedies. Ultimately, Skinner wants his conviction overturned. "Turn over the evidence and test it, and let the chips fall where they may," Skinner told CNN in a recent interview. "If I'm innocent I go home. If I'm guilty, I die. What's so hard about that?"

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said Skinner's request for the DNA could not be separated from his attempt to get off death row, reported the Post. Skinner's statement would seem to support Justice Alito's contention.

"In the real world, a prisoner who wants access to DNA evidence is interested in overturning his conviction," Alito said.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision is not expected until next spring.

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