19 October 2010

U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Whether Prisoners Have a Right to Evidence

By Lisa Dougan, Staff Writer

Wrongful convictions represent one of the shortcomings of the American justice system. Those wrongfully convicted of crimes are part of an ever growing and tragic statistic in the legal community. With the advent and advances in DNA and other scientific technologies, many of those wrongfully convicted have been exonerated from the crimes that sent them to prison for several decades in some cases. Others have not been so fortunate and either remain in prison or, sadly, have already ultimately suffered by being put to death. According to the Innocence Project, a national organization associated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law dedicated to exonerating those who have been wrongfully convicted, 259 people have been exonerated by DNA post-conviction and 17 of those people had received death penalty sentences.[i] Those who have been granted a second chance will always be a part of a brutal statistic and still struggle with adjusting to life outside of prison after spending so many years incarcerated.

          Mistakes occur every day; however, the mistakes made by the justice system often have harsh consequences. The array of evidence that has led to wrongful convictions includes unavailability of DNA testing, eyewitness identification, junk science, jail house informants, and false confessions. Those wrongfully convicted based on those types of evidence as well as other types have been sentenced to life in prison or even death for crimes they did not commit. In order to prove their innocence post-conviction, the court and appeal process seems daunting and never ending and it often takes many years to obtain a positive result. The Supreme Court of the United States has never decided that it is unconstitutional or illegal to execute an innocent person.

          Last week, on October 13, 2010, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the issue of actual innocence and the rights of prisoners to challenge their sentences post-conviction, specifically which forum is appropriate for prisoners to claim a constitutional rights violation.[ii] The question presented is whether a prisoner’s claim for access to evidence for DNA testing may be brought in federal court under the Civil Rights Act or whether that claim is only appropriate in a petition for writ of habeas corpus.

          The murderer in this case is Henry “Hank” Skinner. Skinner, who in now 48 years old, was convicted of killing his live-in girlfriend and her two mentally disabled adult sons on New Year’s Eve in 1993 in Texas. Skinner admitted to being at the scene at the time of the crimes, but claims he was intoxicated and passed out on the couch. Skinner maintains that he is innocent and claims that the requested forensic testing would prove his innocence. Skinner’s attorneys have presented evidence indicating that an uncle of the victims may have committed the murders; however, prosecutors maintain that the evidence clearly points to Skinner. The state also asserts that Skinner is trying to get around the system and that he is not entitled to have evidence tested that was not analyzed prior to his trial in 1995.

          Skinner’s life was spared by the Justices just 40 minutes prior to his scheduled execution on March 24, 2010. There was some DNA testing done prior to his trial that implicated Skinner; however, Skinner now wants other items to be examined. There was some testing done in 2001 that Skinner argues the results of which reveal another person at the crime scene and do not match his DNA. The state has said that those tests were inconclusive, but has repeatedly refused to allow additional forensic examinations offered for free by several labs.  

          Whether Skinner is given the chance to have further DNA testing completed to potentially prove his innocence now lies in the hands of the Justices of the Supreme Court. If the Justices grant prisoners like Skinner a basic right to access to evidence under the Civil Rights Act, another avenue of appeal will then exist for those wrongfully convicted to plead and perhaps prove their innocence. In the meantime, Skinner and many others across the United States will continue to profess their innocence and hope for the second chance that so far 259 others have received. 

Lisa Dougan is a fourth-year evening student. She is a Staff Writer for Juris, a Comment Editor for the Duquesne Business Law Journal, and a member of the Corporate Law Society and the Women's Law Association. Lisa received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a master's degree in forensic science and law from Duquesne. She can be reached at ldougan46@yahoo.com.

[i] http://www.innocenceproject.org/know/.
[ii] The case is Skinner v. Switzer (09-9000).