AUSTIN — A Texas Death Row inmate who came within minutes of being executed for a triple murder in the Panhandle is now at the center of a potentially far-reaching Supreme Court case on DNA testing.
Hank Skinner, who was eating his last meal when the justices stayed his execution in March, says a Texas prosecutor is violating his civil rights by not turning over DNA evidence that Skinner says will prove his innocence. The high court agreed Monday to hear the case.
Skinner was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for killing his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two mentally impaired adult sons. Skinner said he was passed out on the couch the night of the slayings after consuming alcohol and Xanax and could not have committed the murders.
In hearing Skinner's case, the nine justices could decide whether prisoners are empowered to file federal civil-right lawsuits to force DNA testing after their convictions. The decision could give hundreds of prisoners a powerful legal avenue involving DNA evidence, legal experts say.
"It's extremely significant for the Supreme Court to hear this case," said Cory Session of Fort Worth, policy director of the Innocence Project of Texas. "That gives us a lot of hope for other cases down the pike."
Session is the brother of Tim Cole, who died in prison for a sexual assault he didn't commit. The actual assailant confessed to the crime, and Cole was ultimately cleared by DNA testimony and exonerated. Gov. Rick Perry granted Cole a posthumous pardon this year.
Skinner's case received national attention after the Medill Innocence Project at Chicago's Northwestern University began investigating and interviewed a star witness who recanted her testimony. Skinner said the real killer was Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell, who had a violent streak and made unwanted sexual advances toward Busby, according to media reports. Donnell was killed in a car wreck in 1997.
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