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Stephen Keim
30 March, 2010  
11th hour stay in DNA capital case

US Supreme Court to examine whether death row prisoners can apply for fresh analysis of biological evidence … Challenge to old jurisprudence … Stephen Keim reports


Last Wednesday (March 24), the United States Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to a prisoner on death row in Texas who was just one hour from a lethal injection.

The stay order, which prevented the immediate demise of Henry W. Skinner is brief and technical in its wording and unaccompanied by reasons.

imageIt is therefore uninformative.

The fact that the application for the stay had been referred to the nine justices of the Supreme Court by Justice Antonin Scalia (pic) and granted suggests that the court may think that there is something of substance in the application for substantive relief.

Justice Scalia is noted for views that see no validity in any suggestion that capital punishment might offend the restrictions in the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

According to the University of Pittsburgh’s daily Jurist newsletter, Skinner’s claim is based on section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, which allows relief for someone denied rights under the Constitution or federal law.

The application seeks to set aside some worrying jurisprudence developed in a case called District Attorney’s Office v Osborne in which the Supreme Court declined to order that a prisoner had a post-conviction right to access the prosecution’s biological evidence to have them re-tested for DNA.

The majority had held that it …

“would take the development of rules and procedures in this area out of the hands of legislatures and state courts shaping policy in a focused manner and turn it over to federal courts applying the broad parameters of the due process clause.”

imageSkinner’s application argues that although the state, in his case, had carried out some DNA tests, these tests had been selective.

Skinner (pic) wants access to the evidence to have more thorough testing carried out using the most advanced techniques.

It seems unconscionable that a person could be executed in circumstances where the defence has been denied the opportunity to pursue all available (including the most advanced) scientific techniques to determine guilt or innocence beyond reasonable doubt.

The argument and decision making in Skinner’s case may yet have consequences beyond his immediate fate.

Stephen Keim
Eagle Junction