Monday, March 7, 2011

Hank Skinner and the Supremes

The Supreme Court of the United States has just announced, in Skinner v. Switzer, that Hank Skinner has a right to pursue DNA testing under a civil rights law. That is spectacularly awesome news.

This just in. Before we execute someone, that person can now argue in court that all relevant DNA should be tested.

For the one or two of you who may have been reading this blog since its beginning, you may recall that I cut my teeth with a ten part series on the Hank Skinner's case. In fact, I factually exonerated him in a post (not surprisingly) called FACTUALLY EXONERATED! I actually used all caps AND an exclamation mark.

For those newer to this blog and unfamiliar with the Skinner case, the Supreme Court decision (written by Ruth Bader Ginsberg) provides quite a nice, compact summary for a very complicated case.
A Texas jury convicted petitioner Skinner and sentenced him to death for murdering his girlfriend and her sons. He claimed that a potent alcohol and drug mix rendered him physically unable to commit the brutal murders, and he identified his girlfriend’s uncle as the likely perpetrator. In preparation for trial, the State tested some of the physical evidence, but left untested several items, including knives found on the premises, an axe handle, vaginal swabs, finger-nail clippings, and certain hair samples. More than six years later, Texas enacted Article 64, which allows prisoners to gain postconviction DNA testing in limited circumstances. Invoking Article 64, Skinner twice moved in state court for DNA testing of the untested biological evidence. Both motions were denied. ... Skinner next filed the instant federal action for injunctive relief under §1983, naming as defendant respondent Switzer, the District Attorney who has custody of the evidence that Skinner would like to have tested. Skinner alleged that Texas violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by refusing to provide for the DNA testing he requested. ...
Held: There is federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction over Skinner’s complaint, and the claim he presses is cognizable under §1983.
Legal subtleties abound in this case, and it seems to me as if Rob Owen (Skinner's attorney) has pulled yet another rabbit out of the jurisprudential hat. Strangely, it seems as if their plea to the Supreme Court would have failed if Rob had argued that the testing would prove Hank to be wrongfully convicted. Read that sentence again if you wish, but I believe I have typed it correctly.
Measured against this Court’s prior holdings, Skinner has properly invoked §1983. This Court has several times considered when a state prisoner, complaining of unconstitutional state action, may pursue a civil rights claim under §1983, and when habeas corpus is the prisoner’s sole remedy. The pathmarking decision, Heck v. Humphrey ... concerned a state prisoner who brought a §1983 action for damages, alleging that he had been unlawfully investigated, arrested, tried, and convicted. This Court held that §1983 was not an available remedy because any award in the plaintiff’s favor would “necessarily imply” the invalidity of his conviction.
Rob Owen instead argued the law was flawed, at least as it was interpreted by the Texas Courts. He was not arguing that Skinner's rights were violated because he was wrongfully convicted. He was simply challenging the misconstrued interpretation of a possibly flawed law. I'm sure I bollixed that one, but hopefully you get the point.
His counsel has clarified that Skinner does not challenge the prosecutor’s conduct or the CCA’s decisions; instead, he challenges Texas’ postconviction DNA statute “as construed” by the Texas courts.
CCA stands for Criminal Court of Appeals.
Here, success in Skinner’s suit for DNA testing would not “necessarily imply” the invalidity of his conviction. Test results might prove exculpatory, but that outcome is hardly inevitable, for those results could also prove inconclusive or incriminating. Switzer argues that, although Skinner’s immediate aim is DNA testing, his ultimate aim is to use the test results as a platform for attacking his conviction. But she has found no case in which the Court has recognized habeas as the sole remedy where the relief sought would not terminate custody, accelerate the date of release, or reduce the custody level.
So Switzer is claiming that Skinner merely wants to prove his innocence, Skinner is arguing that he is merely challenging a misconstruction of a law, and the Supreme Court sides with Skinner. Welcome to our justice system.

I'm pleased as punch that Skinner will have another chance in the lower courts to request DNA testing, but I feel as if the world is turning upside down. The people who want to execute Skinner are concerned that he might try to prove his innocence, and the people who want free Skinner are claiming that's not their goal.

Ginsberg wrote the majority opinion. Roberts, Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.

Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in which Kennedy and Alito joined.

Robert Owen, of course, praised the 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."

My congratulations to Rob Owen and to Hank Skinner. To Lynn Switzer and the State of Texas, I offer this suggestion. If you are so confident that the DNA will simply confirm Hank's guilt, and if you really want to expedite the process as you claim, just test the damn DNA.