The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday morning for the case of death row inmate Henry “Hank” Skinner, whose conviction the Medill Innocence Project has investigated for more than a decade.
Skinner was sentenced to death in Texas for the 1993 murders of his girlfriend Twila Busby and her two adult sons, Elwin Caler and Randy Busby. But starting in 2000, the Innocence Project began gathering evidence that called his conviction into question, including testimony implicating another suspect.
Skinner’s lawyers sued district attorney Lynn Switzer for access to untested biological evidence that might exonerate him. Switzer withheld the evidence from Skinner’s conviction trial when his defense attorney did not request it. The question before the Supreme Court is what sort of suit his lawyers must file to continue to press for access — a habeas corpus petition or a civil rights suit.
The case “wasn’t about whether his DNA will be tested,” said Innocence Project staff reporter Alexandra Johnson (Medill ‘10), who was in the courtroom. “It was about whether he has a right to view for it.”
Skinner’s lawyers might have difficulty gaining access to the evidence using a habeas petition — the traditional method — because his defense did not request access at his conviction trial. A civil rights suit would argue that Skinner has a basic constitutional right to access.
“The whole purpose of pursuing this lawsuit is so that Mr. Skinner can have a meaningful opportunity to pursue the liberty interest he has under State [Texas] law in trying to secure release based on innocence,” said Skinner’s defense attorney, University of Texas law professor Robert Owen, according to the case’s transcript.
Gregory Coleman, Switzer’s attorney, said filing such a request for discovery amounted to an attempt to “game” the system.
“The moment you file the complaint through discovery, what Skinner wants to do is say, ‘I want to engage in artful pleading, and so I’m going to make attacks,’” Coleman said.
The oral arguments for Skinner v. Switzer began at 10 a.m. EST after a buzzer rang throughout the courtroom. Four former members of the Medill Innocence Project were present among the audience. The four sat less than 20 feet away from the justices.
The arguments lasted about 70 minutes, said former Innocence Project student Emily Glazer (Medill ‘10), who was in the courtroom. She said the justices seemed skeptical as they probed the arguments of Skinner’s and Switzer’s attorneys.
“I was very surprised,” Johnson said. “I expected the conservative and liberal judges to be more polarized, but they were all very inquisitive and asked challenging questions to both sides. Because of that, I found it difficult to define how they would rule.”
Innocence Project alumnae Gaby Fleischman (Medill ‘10), Rachel Cicurel (Medill ‘10), Glazer and Johnson, who investigated the Skinner case, arrived at 3:45 a.m. and waited five hours to enter the courtroom.
“To think that one minute we’re in Pampa, Texas, walking around trailer parks, interviewing people, and the next minute, we’re sitting in the Supreme Court, hearing the case being argued,” Glazer said, “It’s not an experience many people get to have.”
Glazer said the court may render a decision any time between December and March.
She added, “Hopefully truth will prevail in the end.”