A Texas death row inmate will get a hearing before the Supreme Court over his claims of "actual innocence" and demands authorities conduct more thorough DNA testing of evidence gathered at the crime scene. At issue is whether capital inmates have a basic federal civil right to have forensic evidence reviewed late in the appeal process.
Supporters of Henry Skinner, convicted of the murders of three acquaintances, say if he loses this appeal, an innocent man could be put to death.
The state says he is not entitled to testing of evidence that was not analyzed before his 1995 trial.
The justices had issued a stay just before his scheduled March 24 execution. The court will now schedule oral arguments for the fall, to decide the larger constitutional questions. Federal appeals courts have split on the issue in recent years.
Skinner, 47, was convicted of the New Year's Eve 1993 killings of his live-in girlfriend and her two adult sons. He strongly denies any involvement, and claims retesting would prove his innocence and determine the real killer.
His lawyers welcomed the high court's decision to intervene. "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," said attorney Rob Owen.
Prosecutors maintain forensic evidence gathered at the scene and witness statements point to Skinner.
A female friend of Skinner's who lived four blocks away testified at Skinner's trial that he walked to her mobile home and told her that he may have kicked Twila Busby to death, although evidence did not show she had been kicked. The neighbor has since recanted parts of her testimony.
Authorities followed a blood trail from the crime scene to the female friend's home and found Skinner in the closet, authorities said. He was "wearing heavily blood-stained jeans and socks and bearing a gash on the palm of his right hand," according to the Texas attorney general's summary of the case.
Also found stabbed to death were Elwin "Scooter" Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20.
In addition, authorities said cuts on Skinner's hand came from the knife used to stab the men. The onetime oil field worker said he cut it on glass. Some DNA testing was done that implicated Skinner, but not on the items he now wants examined, including vaginal swabs from Busby, fingernail clippings, two knives, and items of clothing.
"DNA testing showed that blood on the shirt Skinner was wearing at the time of his arrest was Twila's blood, and blood on Skinner's jeans was a mixture of blood from Elwin and Twila," state officials said.
However, Owen wrote in the Supreme Court filing, "the victims' injuries show that whoever murdered them must have possessed considerable strength, balance and coordination." Skinner claimed he had been passed out on a couch from a combination of vodka and codeine, and that he was physically unable to commit the crimes.
An expert testified at trial that Skinner would have been too intoxicated to commit the crimes, and a review of the evidence suggests that Skinner might have been even more intoxicated than initially thought, Owen wrote.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry had received more than 8,000 letters from Skinner's advocates urging a new trial, according to the Innocence Project and Change.org, whose members and supporters have sent the letters through their Web sites.
Evidence presented at trial suggested that Twila Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell - who is now dead - could have been the killer. At a New Year's Eve party she attended for a short time on the last night of her life, Donnell stalked her, making crude sexual remarks, according to trial testimony. A friend who drove her home from the party testified she was "fidgety and worried" and that Donnell was no longer at the party when he returned.
"The defense presented evidence that Donnell was a hot-tempered ex-con who had sexually molested a girl, grabbed a pregnant woman by the throat and kept a knife in his car," according to Owen's letter to Perry.
Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, who married Skinner in 2008, told CNN in March that she began writing to Skinner in 1996 and they began visiting in 2000.
"I'm convinced of his innocence not because I love him and he's my husband, I'm convinced of his innocence ... [because] there is scientific forensic evidence to prove that he was not even in a state to stand up at the time of the crime let alone murder three people that he loved," Ageorges-Skinner, a French woman, said on "Larry King Live." "There is absolutely no motive."
Texas has executed more prisoners than any state since 1976. Ten condemned inmates have died by lethal injection since January.
Recently, questions have swirled in Texas regarding the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for a fire that killed his three daughters, and allegations he was not guilty of the murders.
On March 19, Perry issued a posthumous pardon for Timothy Cole, who was serving a 25-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he died in prison from an asthma attack. After his death, DNA tests established his innocence, and another man confessed to the crime.
The Supreme Court case is Skinner v. Switzer (09-9000).