July 18, 2010
By Janelle Stecklein
Less than an hour from death, a convicted murderer vaulted Gray County, a small county of about 22,000 people, into the spotlight when the nation's highest court jumped into the fray.
By garnering the attention of the Supreme Court, Henry Skinner potentially is months from shaping the way courts across the country grant access to post-conviction evidence for DNA testing.
Legal experts agree that Skinner's case, filed against Gray County District Attorney Lynn Switzer, potentially could have a big impact on the justice system if the court agrees to add a new avenue for convicts to access evidence for DNA testing. But for Skinner, the stakes are much higher - it's a life-or-death battle for him.
During what were supposed to be Skinner's last days, his attorneys filed a last-ditch motion to get the convicted triple murderer access to several pieces of evidence the 48-year-old claims will clear his name. Skinner claims that if that evidence were tested for DNA, he would be exonerated for the murder of Twila Busby, 40, and her two disabled sons, Elwin "Scooter" Caler, 22, and Melvin "Randy" Busby Jr., 20. But prosecutors and criminal appeals courts have continued to deny him that access, on the grounds that he hasn't been able to prove that testing could clear him.
"That decision represents the necessary first step to our eventually obtaining the DNA testing that Mr. Skinner has long sought," Skinner's attorney, Rob Owen, said in a statement. "We look forward to the opportunity to persuade the court that if a state official arbitrarily denies a prisoner access to evidence for DNA testing, the prisoner should be allowed to challenge that decision in a federal civil rights lawsuit."
When Skinner exhausted his criminal appeals, he and his attorneys sued Switzer in a civil rights lawsuit, claiming deprivation of rights, to determine if he can access that evidence through this alternative avenue.
Skinner hopes that if he is granted DNA testing, he will be acquitted and released.
...[F]ederal appeals courts across the country have been ruling differently on lawsuits like Skinner's.
In California, for instance, the 9th Court of Appeals is more liberal and has granted inmates access to evidence. But the 5th Court of Appeals, which serves the Texas Panhandle, is more conservative and has denied inmates similar access. The Supreme Court is seeking to settle those differences.
"It could be huge, because right now, a number of different federal circuits have ruled differently on this," said Meghan Ryan, an assistant professor of law at Southern Methodist University. "It will bring courts across the nation into uniformity on this. Prisoners will be treated equally. It won't matter so much where they're sitting and where they're being detained."
"The only thing we win is the right to sue her (Switzer)," Skinner said, noting that his attorneys will have to convince another judge that they are entitled to the evidence.
But while Ryan believes a ruling likely will be one of legal procedure, it will have a more far-reaching impact in the court of public opinion.
"Certainly, the impact of the court's decision will probably reach further among the general public than in the legal arena," she said. "My guess is, in the media, it will be portrayed as how just the criminal justice system is."
Read the full story here.
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