Hank Skinner is seen in the visiting area of the Texas Department of Criminal… (Michael Graczyk / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — With just an hour to spare, the Supreme Court blocked the Wednesday evening execution in Texas of convicted murderer Hank Skinner, who maintains his innocence and who has sought DNA testing of key evidence for a decade.
The justices issued a stay of execution and said they wanted more time to consider Skinner's appeal. It will probably be several weeks before the court decides whether to hear his case.
Last year, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the Constitution does not give convicts the right to demand DNA testing of crime-scene evidence. The case, however, did not involve a prisoner facing execution.
Skinner had sued the county district attorney seeking DNA tests on semen and skin samples as well as two bloody knives and a man's windbreaker, all taken from the scene of a triple homicide in the north Texas town of Pampa 16 years ago.
Last week, a crime lab in Phoenix offered to conduct the testing for free.
Skinner was convicted and sentenced to die for killing Twila Busby, his girlfriend, and her two adult sons in their home on New Year's Eve 1993. Skinner had been drunk and sound asleep on the couch earlier in the evening when Busby left for a party. After midnight, he staggered away from the house with blood from two of the victims on his clothes.
Skinner has always maintained his innocence and contends that an uncle of Busby was the killer. Busby had left the party after her uncle, now deceased, made crude sexual advances. It appeared as though she had been raped and had struggled with her killer.
Police and prosecutors said that the blood on Skinner's clothes came from two of the victims and that he had left bloody palm prints in the house.
Skinner said he awoke in a stupor and cut his hand on a broken bottle.
His trial lawyer, a former county prosecutor, did not seek DNA testing of the crime-scene evidence.
Since then, state and federal judges have rejected Skinner's appeals, ruling that he had no right to test evidence that he could have tested at the time of his trial.
Ten years ago, the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University raised doubts about Skinner's guilt. Researchers found a neighbor who said the uncle had cleaned out his van and replaced its carpet the day after the killings.
They also found a former girlfriend who had seen Skinner shortly after the slayings. She said he was too drunk and disoriented to have killed three people, including one son who stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 225 pounds.