The Supreme Court this week had good news for a Texas death row inmate: He can sue a district attorney who won't give him access to DNA evidence that might clear him. The 6-3 decision, which opens a new avenue of appeal for condemned prisoners, is welcome. But it falls short of what the court should do to make DNA evidence available to every prisoner who requests it.
Henry Skinner was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two sons in 1993. He says he was in an alcoholic haze during the killings and that his girlfriend's uncle was probably the killer. At his trial, he declined to seek access to DNA evidence that might have exonerated him.
Later, Skinner changed his mind and, using a Texas law, tried to obtain DNA testing. But he was rebuffed by the courts because the state law, among other restrictions, penalized prisoners who hadn't sought DNA evidence earlier.
The significance of this week's decision is that prisoners can now sue under a civil rights law known as Section 1983 to press their claims instead of being limited to habeas corpus suits, a traditional avenue of appeal that Congress has made more difficult to pursue. Hurdles remain, but the court has allowed some suits designed to obtain DNA evidence.