published Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

No limits for justice

Advances in the technology of DNA testing over the last decade have made DNA evidence, where it is available, an essential tool in criminal trials for the conviction or exoneration of defendants. Most states have recognized that, and since 2000 all but two states have allowed post-conviction petitions for review of DNA evidence to go forward. But many of these states have refused to extend that right to defendants who were convicted in the years before such post-conviction rights were passed. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday seems likely to change that for defendants trapped in that irrational relic of legal limbo land.

The court’s decision came in the case of Henry Skinner, who was convicted in Texas and sentenced to die in 1993 for the murder of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons. The killer used an ax handle to bludgeon the victims to death, but Skinner, who was found by police in bloody clothes at a friend’s house hours after the killing, denied he was the murderer.

Skinner said he awoke from an alcohol-and-drug induced stupor, found the victims, and fled for safety, fearing the killer might have been Busby’s uncle, a convicted sexual predator who has since died. At Skinner’s trial, police introduced some DNA evidence, but withheld DNA findings from blood, fingernail scrapings, hair and a vaginal swab taken at the crime scene. Skinner and his lawyer, perhaps fearful of what that evidence would show, did not demand it at the trail.

With a new lawyer and a stay of execution, however, Skinner has since sought that evidence. A Texas court denied his appeal for the untested DNA on the grounds that he surrendered his chance for it at his trial, and that he was ineligible for post-conviction rights to the evidence under a Texas law that was passed years after he was convicted.

Skinner’s legal team subsequently pressed his claim that the latter denial of post-conviction access to the evidence constituted a denial of his civil rights to due process under federal law.

The Supreme Court reasonably upheld that claim Monday. In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by conservatives Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts, the court ruled that Skinner was entitled to the evidence. Justice Ginsburg emphasized that his lawsuit for the DNA findings was reasonable because it did not “necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.” It might be exculpatory, Ginsburg wrote, or proof against him, or inconclusive.

Dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito, wrote that the ruling needlessly gave defendants an “additional bite at the apple” and may well unleash a flood of similar post-conviction appeals.

That seems illogical and unlikely. Since 2000, a number of states have lifted all restrictions on post-conviction appeals, even for those who originally confessed to crimes. Yet there were just 21 appeals like Skinner’s between 2000 and 2008, according to the Innocence Project. On the other hand, Texas leads the nation in the number of defendants (41) exonerated by DNA evidence after convictions.

If justice is the ultimate goal, those numbers clearly confirm the value of allowing post-conviction appeals when ever untested DNA evidence remains available. All restrictions on such evidence should be removed.

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