Updated 4:24 a.m. 3/8/11
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of inmate Hank Skinner, a Texas death row inmate whose case the Medill Innocence Project has researched since 2000. The court found that all convicted prisoners, like Skinner, had the right to request DNA testing on evidence that was not used in the original trial.
“I’m overjoyed,” Innocence Project director David Protess said. “I’ve been waiting 11 years for this. So i’m glad that they saw the justice in our arguments, and the evidence we developed, and Hank Skinner is finally going to have the opportunity to prove his innocence.”
Skinner was sentenced to death in Texas in 1995 for the murder of his girlfriend and her two adult sons. The Medill Innocence Project began work on the Skinner case in March 2000, when students uncovered physical evidence witnesses said was critical to the case.
The evidence includes a rape kit, fingernail clippings from the female victim, the murder weapons and a windbreaker found near the murder scene covered in blood and hair. The prosecution did not use this evidence in Skinner’s trial and refused to grant his attorneys access to it.
At the heart of the case was the question of whether federal civil rights law allowed Skinner to access that evidence, which supporters believe might implicate another suspect, Robert Donnell, who was killed in a 1997 car crash. Now, Skinner’s attorneys will proceed with a case in federal court to determine his guilt or innocence using the new evidence.
“It’s a landmark case,” Protess said. He said that the Supreme Court established that all convicted prisoners have a right to request tests of previously-untested DNA evidence.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion for the court, which ruled 6-3 in Skinner’s favor. Justices Clarence Thomas, Sam Alito and Anthony Kennedy dissented.
Protess said he had not spoken yet with Skinner — but he did contact Skinner’s wife, Sandrine Ageorges. “Your work really makes a difference in this mad world and you can be proud of yourselves. ‘Thank you’ cannot aptly reflect my feelings tonight,” she wrote in an email to Protess and a handful of students who have been researching the case.
“They’re ecstatic,” Protess said of the students. “They helped change the law of the land, and at least temporarily saved the life of a man who may be innocent.”
For more information on the case, see an article North by Northwestern ran in October 2010.