January 01, 2012

Texas Death Row Prisoner Fights for DNA Testing

Rebecca Katz

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution on November 7, 2011, for Hank Skinner, a prisoner on Texas’s death row. In 1995, Mr. Skinner was convicted of the 1993 deaths of his girlfriend and her two sons. He maintains his innocence, arguing that he was incapable of killing anyone because he was nearly unconscious from alcohol and codeine abuse. For nearly a decade, Mr. Skinner has sought DNA testing of evidence found at the crime scene that could potentially prove his innocence. The evidence was not tested at trial, and the trial attorneys’ decision not to do so has created numerous procedural hurdles that have been extraordinarily difficult to overcome.

Mr. Skinner’s execution was scheduled for November 9, 2011. In his motion for a stay, Mr. Skinner and his legal team, including volunteer lawyers from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, argued that the court must consider a new Texas state law that allows a prisoner to request DNA testing even if testing did not occur at trial. During the week of Mr. Skinner’s scheduled execution, more than one dozen current and former lawmakers, judges, and lawyers, including former Texas Governor Mark White, called on Governor Rick Perry to intervene and stay the execution. The letter read “We [...] share grave and growing concerns about the State’s stubborn refusal to date to test all the evidence in the Skinner case.” In addition, more than 100,000 people nationwide signed petitions supporting Mr. Skinner. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution on November 7, 2011. While the court’s action does not guarantee that the evidence will be tested, the stay will allow the state to consider Mr. Skinner’s request and determine whether changes to the law permit DNA testing in this case.

In March 2010, Mr. Skinner was within one hour of being executed when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay to consider the merits of his appeal. The Court ultimately decided that Mr. Skinner could pursue DNA testing of evidence with a §1983 civil rights claim.

Rebecca Katz

Project Associate