Supreme Court hands Hank Skinner a big victory

By Alan Bean

Monday’s ruling by the Supreme Court has removed legal roadblocks standing between Texas death row defendant Hank Skinner and the testing of DNA evidence he says will exonerate him.  Prosecutors had argued that since Skinner was covered in the blood of the murder victim, no further testing was necessary.  Skinner’s defenders have asked why, if further DNA is unlikely to produce evidence helpful to Skinner, the state is so adamantly opposed to testing.

At NPR, Nina Totenberg provides her usual just-the-facts-ma’am analysis.  Dave Mann’s comments at the Texas Observer site reveal the deeper significance of this ruling:

There are quite a few restrictions on habeas petitions, according to legal scholars. For one, the statute of limitations is short. Second, you’re allowed to file only one habeas petition. So if you file once, and more DNA material surfaces later, you’re out of luck. And, third, federal courts are supposed to show deference to state courts in habeas petitions. That means, federal courts can only overturn state rulings when they’re clearly unreasonable. You could argue that the rulings by Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals are frequently unreasonable, but it’s luck of the draw whether a federal judge will see it that way. In other words, your chances of winning a habeas claim to access DNA evidence aren’t good in Texas. And so it’s been so far for Skinner.

The system is set up to make it as difficult as possible for indigent defendants (and the vast majority of defendants are indigent) to defend themselves.  A pro se writ of habeas corpus has little chance of success under the best of circumstances, but appeals courts don’t even want to go to the bother of skimming the contents for fifteen minutes before firing off a boilerplate denial.  Too much busy work. 

Yesterday’s ruling means that inmates who miss habeas deadlines or have their writs denied can now appeal to federal civil rights law. 

Whether the Supreme Court’s ruling helps Hank Skinner or not remains to be seen, but it certainly rolls back a portion of the great damage perpetrated by the great rollback in prisoner’s rights perpetrated at the height of the Clinton administration.