Thursday, March 10, 2011

Skinner case boosts chances for improving state DNA testing statute

I've not had time to give more than passing attention to Hank Skinner's much-remarked victory at the US Supreme Court, allowing federal civil rights lawsuits to seek DNA testing on top of Texas' Ch. 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, our DNA testing statute. But the decision (pdf) does make me think the chances of passage for state Sen. Rodney Ellis' SB 122 have improved as a result of the decision. The bill, which is part of his "innocence package," essentially removes a few already minimalist barriers to securing postconviction DNA testing where evidence was never tested and the results might prove innocence. If it passes, judges will no longer consider why the DNA wasn't tested in the first place, only if it exists, wasn't tested and potentially could prove innocence. (It also requires unidentified DNA profiles in the sample to be matched with CODIS,  the national database, which nine times out of ten would probably happen anyway.)

There were already strong arguments for the bill: If DNA exists and could be exculpatory, denying it due to procedural hurdles is unjust if it keeps an innocent person in prison, regardless of the state or victims' interests in "finality." But the Skinner case adds a much more practical argument: If DAs fight testing and a local judge denies it under Chapter 64, they could be subjecting the county to a federal civil rights suit! That ups the ante, giving SB 122 more "legs" because counties' and DAs' interests are now more firmly aligned with it; Skinner took away all incentive to fight DNA testing in state court on procedural grounds.

3 comments:

Michael said...

While I am against the death penalty based on my deeply-held beliefs against it, and because of the haphazard procedures employed by law enforcement and prosecutors, I still don't think Hank Skinner is going to get the evidence tested. Even if he does, procedurally-speaking, he doesn't deserve it, considering the overwhelming evidence against him.

Police discovered Skinner in a girlfriend's closet, blood from both victims on his shirt, with a trail of it leading to him in the closet. He even admitted to being at the murder scene when it occurred. He was apparently passed-out drunk on a Lazy-Boy; the blood on his shirt must've gotten there from the [pick-axer who was murdering three people within feet from him while he remained sleepy night-night.

If the evidence in question was THE basis of the state's case, or if it would absolutely prove his innocence,that would be one thing. Contemporary jurisprudence would not require the testing. He will get his day in federal court, but I think the decision will be that he's not entitled to testing in his case.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Michael, you may well be right; my own knowledge of the case is quite minimal. But surely you'd also agree that the SCOTUS ruling opened the door for everybody who gets turned own in Ch. 64 to file a civil rights suit. What would they have to lose now that SCOTUS says federal courts have jurisdiction?

I was thinking less about what it meant to Skinner personally, I suppose, and more what the case means as precedent when applied down the line. As a practical matter, unless I'm misunderstanding, the decision creates a "next stop" at the federal courts for those turned down for DNA testing by state courts. And since DNA testing under Ch. 64 hasn't proven to be particularly onerous and the volume wouldn't increase significatly, I think the Skinner ruling makes the argument for Ellis' bill a lot stronger, regardless of the merits of Skinner's claims.

Michael said...

I totally agree, Scott! It does create another hope in the federal courts when state courts have failed. That's what Section 1983 is all about. Let's hope the Justices don't regret their decision.