UPDATED: Texas Court Stays Execution, Inmate Seeks To Test DNA Evidence That May Prove His Innocence

Texas death row inmate Henry Skinner

As of now, Texas leads the nation with 476 executions since 1976. And with 12 executions recorded in this year alone, Texas looks to carry out the 13th against 49-year-old Henry “Hank” Skinner. Skinner was sentenced to death for the murders of his girlfriend and her two developmentally challenged sons in 1993. He insists, however, that he is innocent and that there is DNA evidence that could exculpate him. Forty-five minutes before his execution last year, the Supreme Court stayed his execution and said the inmate has “a basic civil right to press for DNA analysis.”

Numerous Texas officials including former Gov. Mark White (D) requested that Gov. Rick Perry (R) and the state of Texas ensure that the evidence, adding in a letter dated Oct. 27 that “executive Mr. Skinner without testing all the relevant evidence would suggest official indifference to the possibility of error in this case and needlessly undermine public confidence in Texas’s criminal justice system.” But last Thursday, a Texas court denied Skinner’s motion:

“We are deeply disappointed that the trial court has denied Mr. Skinner’s request for DNA testing,” Rob Owen, Skinner’s attorney, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the trial court’s order offers no explanation for its conclusion that DNA testing is not called for in this case.”

The case will now go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Owen said, adding that he is confident the court will give the case “deliberate consideration. … We are confident that upon such careful review, the court will conclude that DNA testing is necessary in this case to ensure the reliability of the verdict.

“But for now, the Court of Criminal Appeals must stop the scheduled November 9 execution rather than allow itself to be rushed to a hasty and ill-considered decision,” Owen said. “The stakes in this case are too high to allow Mr. Skinner to be executed before he has a fair chance to make his case that the trial court made a grave mistake in denying his request for DNA testing.”

The Supreme Court voted 6-3 last year to back Skinner’s “basic civil right to press for DNA analysis.” However, a year earlier, the High Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to bar Alaska’s death row inmate William Osborne from testing DNA evidence to prove or disprove his innocence because Chief Justice Roberts somehow “determined that Osborne has no right to pay for a test that could exonerate him for a crime he did not commit.” The ridiculousness of this ruling did not escape Justice Stevens who wrote in his dissent, “for reasons the State has been unable or unwilling to articulate, it refuses to allow Osborne to test the evidence at his own expense and to thereby ascertain the truth once and for all.”

Incidentally, the Texas court that denied Skinner’s request also failed to offer any reasons as to why, and Owen is asking the Appeals Court to insist that they do. What’s more, Texas state attorneys are using Roberts’ reasoning to argue that “testing should not be conducted because there was not a reasonable probability that the trial jury would have found Skinner innocent if the testing had been done for his trial,” pointing to witness statements that point to him as the killer. Some of that witness testimony, however, has since been recanted.

As his attorney noted, the state plans to execute Skinner this Wednesday.


Gov. Perry’s office tells ThinkProgress that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution.

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The court’s order is available here. It is very brief — only two pages — but explains that it decided to issue the stay in part because Texas’ DNA testing statute was changed specifically because of the Skinner case:

Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 64, which provides for DNA testing, has undergone several changes since its creation, but those changes have never been Skinner reviewed in the particular context of this case. Because the DNA statute has changed, and because some of those changes were because of this case, we find that it would be prudent for this Court to take time to fully review the changes in the statute as they pertain to this case.

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