The court’s narrow, 6-3 ruling means that Hank Skinner, who was about an hour away from execution when the Supreme Court intervened last year, will not be put to death soon while his legal case continues.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said prison inmates may use a federal civil rights law to seek DNA testing that was not performed before their conviction. Lower federal courts had dismissed Skinner’s claims at an early stage, although other federal judges have allowed similar lawsuits to go forward in other parts of the country.
Justice Ginsburg said it is by no means clear that Skinner can prevail in his lawsuit and actually gain access to the evidence for testing. Even if he does win in court, she said, testing the evidence “may prove exculpatory, inculpatory or inconclusive.”
Skinner, 48, was convicted of killing his girlfriend and her two adult sons on New Year’s Eve 1993.
Police found him hiding in a closet in the home of a woman he knew, about three hours after the bodies were discovered. He was splattered with the blood of at least two of the victims. A trail of blood led police from the bodies to his hiding place, a few blocks away. He acknowledged being inside the house in the Texas Panhandle where the killings took place.
But other evidence was not tested at the time of Skinner’s trial, on the advice of his lawyer. The untested material includes vaginal swabs taken from the girlfriend, Twila Jean Busby, at the time of her autopsy, fingernail clippings, a knife found on the porch of Busby’s house and a second knife found in a plastic bag in the house, a towel with the second knife and a jacket next to Busby’s body,