DNA Testing and the Death Penalty

On March 7, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that inmates seeking post conviction DNA testing can bring claims under a federal civil rights law.  Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner has been seeking post-conviction DNA testing for 10 years in order to show that he is innocent of  killing his girlfriend and her two sons in 1993.

Nina Morrison, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project which has assisted Mr. Skinner’s attorneys on his federal civil rights suit seeking DNA testing since 2008 stated: 

“The Supreme Court was right to recognize that inmates should be able to bring a civil rights claim in federal court seeking access to DNA testing.  Mr. Skinner has been fighting for 10 years for access to evidence so that he could conduct DNA testing that could prove his innocence.  While today’s decision doesn’t guarantee that the evidence will be tested, he will at least now be able to use the federal courts to prove that he was being unfairly denied the testing by Texas law.  But we hope that the district attorney will end further delay and consent to the testing. ” 

According to the Innocence Project, there have been 266 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States.  Seventeen people had been sentenced to death before DNA demonstrated their innocence ultimately leading to their release from death row.  Skinner was only hours away from execution when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in order to consider this latest issue. 

It seems absurd that if untestd DNA evidence exists, evidence which could shed new light on the reliablity of a conviction and death sentence, that it could remain untested when the stakes are so high.  Many people, in our CSI world, believe such testing is automatic. That is not the case.

It can often take years to secure DNA testing or to get the courts to consider new DNA evidence, as in the case of Tennessee’s Paul House, who spent years trying to get a court to consider the DNA evidence that ultimately led to his release.   

I am grateful that the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges that inmates, particularly those subject to death, should be given access to scientific  evidence that could demonstrate their innocence. If obtaining justice and not merely maintaining a conviction is the goal of our criminal justice system, how can we not demand it?

Picture by Micah Baldwin

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