The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
If you’re going to put a man to death for a crime, you’d want to be sure you’ve got the right guy. At least most of us would. But prosecutors in Texas have fought a request for DNA testing by Hank Skinner, who was less than an hour away from being executed when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.
On Monday, the court said he may pursue a lawsuit requiring prosecutors to allow analysis of crime-scene evidence. If that evidence confirms Skinner’s guilt, there will be plenty of time to put him to death. But if he’s wrongly executed, the mistake can’t be undone.
Skinner was convicted in the 1993 murder of his girlfriend and her two sons. He admitted being at the scene, and DNA testing confirmed that. But he said he was so intoxicated that he couldn’t have committed the crimes. He suspects her uncle and asked for DNA analysis of hair, blood and other biological evidence that the state had not tested.
But Skinner’s lawyer had declined to make that request before his trial — fearing, he said, that the information would convict Skinner. Texas law says in effect that once a defendant passes up the chance, he loses it for good. So the prosecutor subsequently refused to turn over the biological evidence for testing, even at Skinner’s expense.
But the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, said he can pursue his lawsuit under a federal civil rights law. Though the verdict doesn’t guarantee he’ll get the evidence he wants — much less exoneration — it improves the chances of the whole truth coming to light.
That’s something Texas prosecutors should value. But Texas is one of many states that categorically exclude certain convicts from access to DNA testing — such as those who pleaded guilty, as if no innocent person ever did such a thing. This decision will make it harder for states to withhold evidence that might establish innocence.
The dissenters in this case predicted a stampede of inmates demanding the same thing, whether they’re innocent or guilty. But Nina Morrison, a staff attorney for the Innocence Project, says that under the federal statute invoked in this case, there have been only about two dozen such petitions over the past decade — even though they have been allowed by most federal courts.
One of those came from Johnnie Lee Savory, who served 30 years for a 1977 double murder in Peoria, Ill., that he says he didn’t commit. Paroled in 2006, he has sued to get access to DNA for tests that were unavailable at the time of his trial, but to no avail. Now he’s trying to get Gov. Pat Quinn to order them.
The legal wrangling in his case, as in the one decided Monday, turned on technical legal issues. But the real issue should be whether it’s wise and prudent to exclude evidence that could save innocent people from unjust punishment. It’s not a hard question.