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Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

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In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Supreme Court To Hear Texas Death Row Inmate's DNA Case

Hank Skinner
Washington, DC, United States (AHN) - The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday on whether a Texas man convicted of murder can have DNA evidence in his case tested. Advocacy groups, state lawmakers and at least one media outlet have cited problems in the case of Hank Skinner, including post-trial evidence and falsified testimony.

Skinner, 48, was scheduled to die by lethal injection in March, but the Supreme Court issued a temporary reprieve, saying it would stay his execution until it decides on whether to consider his appeal.

He was convicted of the murders 16 years ago of his live-in girlfriend and her two adult sons, who suffered developmental problems. He was in their home when the New Year's Eve killings happened, but he claims to have been in a daze from drugs and alcohol he took earlier that day, and therefore unable to have carried out the crimes.

Skinner argues in his civil rights lawsuit that he was denied access to DNA tests for 10 years. Prosecutors tested selective evidence for DNA, he alleges, but rejected his requests to test biological evidence that could conclusively determine his guilt or innocence.

The defense lawyer in Skinner's trial had decided against testing any of the evidence for DNA, while the prosecutor had tested for DNA only three of a dozen items. The tests showed that blood stains on Skinner's clothes were those of the victims.

Among the evidence Skinner wants tested for DNA are a victim's hairs and fingernail clippings, vaginal swabs, a windbreaker that could have belonged to the killer, and knives from the crime scene.

Skinner had asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for clemency or a stay of his execution to conduct DNA tests. The board unanimously rejected his request early this year.

The Medill Innocence Project has cited the star witness' recantation of her testimony in a audio-taped interview to eight investigative journalism Northwestern University students in 1999.

Blood tests on Skinner also showed he would not have had the strength or balance to commit the three murders, lending credence to his claim that he was unconscious from codeine and alcohol.

A former construction worker who spent 15 years in solitary confinement in a 9-by-12-foot prison cell, Skinner has maintained his innocence since being accused of the crimes. He believes his girlfriend's uncle, Robert Donnell, was responsible for the murders.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis is one of several lawmakers who have been urging that DNA testing be carried out.

The Dallas Morning News in an editorial Tuesday invoked the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 and who was prosecuted using "flawed science," according to an inquiry this summer by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

"If Skinner loses, our state again could be in the embarrassing and outrageous position of authorizing an execution with potentially exculpatory evidence locked away," the newspaper said.

"The appearance of finality can be illusory. Rape victims involved in 20 Dallas County DNA exoneration cases know that," it added. "It's possible that Skinner is as guilty as the West Texas sky is blue. Texas courts say they're sure of it. But they don't have all the facts, and there's no excuse not to have them."

A growing number of prisoners nationwide have been exonerated through DNA tests. According to the Innocence Project, DNA testing has overturned more than 250 wrongful convictions across the country, including 40 in Texas, the state with the highest number of executions.

Source: AHN, October 13, 2010

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