Move over, habeas corpus. The United States Supreme Court has ruled (read the full opinion here) that Texas Death Row inmate Hank Skinner can indeed pursue a civil lawsuit brought under federal civil rights law as he tries to get certain evidence tested for DNA now, long after his criminal trial where he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
The State of Texas as well as many others in the criminal law community, were arguing that Skinner could not advance a claim in civil courts because the law surrounding habeas corpus prevented him from doing so. In sum, they said, Skinner was seeking his freedom and accordingly, he had to file a petition for writ of habeas corpus. The civil rights arguments, in a civil courtroom and not a criminal one, were not available to him, or anyone else.
Wrong, the Supreme Court said today.
The opinion today makes it the law of the land that a Death Row inmate who is seeking to test evidence for DNA that "… may prove exculpatory, inculpatory or inconclusive." will be allowed to do so because this is within his civil rights.
Already, the next question is being asked: who else can this opinion help? Death Row inmates and their lawyers must now consider the possibility that the Skinner decision will help them, as well.
This is a major victory for those interested in justice, and particularly for those who understand the weaknesses of the indigent defense death penalty trials in this country. Our sincerest congratulations to attorney Law Professor Robert Owen of the University of Texas’ Capital Punishment Center who represented Hank Skinner before the High Court.