The U.S. Supreme Court has put Texas’s procedures in death penalty appeals in the spotlight again. It blocked the execution of Henry Skinner, who was schedule to die at 6 p.m. tonight, Texas time. The Court’s action followed the decision of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles not to recommend clemency to Governor Rick Perry. The issue in the Skinner case is that he has been denied the opportunity to have possible DNA evidence tested. Skinner has been convicted of the murder of his girlfriend and her two sons, both mentally retarded adults, in Pampa, Texas, in 1995. Skinner also has an appeal pending before the High Court, which has not been scheduled for consideration.
The action by the Court is certain to renew debate over the action of state authorities in protecting the rights of the accused in capital cases, including Governor Perry, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Here is Scotus Blog’s take on the case:
Skinner is seeking to raise an issue that the Justices had agreed to review last Term in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne (08-6). The Court decided the Osborne case on June 18, but left unresolved that specific issue. The question is whether a state inmate seeking access to and testing of DNA evidence may pursue that claim under civil rights law (Section 1983), rather than in a federal habeas challenge. Skinner’s lawyers contend that he has tried unsuccessfully to use Texas state procedures for DNA testing, so his only remaining chance to get it is through a civil rights claim.
For ten years, his lawyers have said, he has sought access to DNA evidence that was never tested by prosecutors. He filed his federal civil rights claim only after those efforts had failed, his counsel has said. Although prosecutors arranged for some DNA tests on some of the evidence, and used the results to help convict Skinner, his attorneys contend that prosecutors only sought selective testing of crime scene materials.
In addition, the petition argued that the conflict among lower courts on whether a DNA access claim can be pursued under civil rights law, or only under habeas law, has intensified since the Supreme Court agreed to examine that issue in the Osborne case last Term. Thus, it said, the need for Supreme Court guidance is now “more urgent.”
If the Court grants the petition, the postponement will remain in effect. If the Court declines to review the case, the postponement will expire and the state can proceed with the execution. If it does review the case, no ruling is expected until the October term.