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Court to hear Texas death row inmate DNA case

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether a Texas death row inmate can use a civil rights law to require that the state test DNA evidence he says could prove his innocence in a triple murder.

The justices agreed to hear Henry Skinner's appeal. On March 24, they granted him a stay about an hour before his scheduled execution to give them more time to decide whether to take up his case.

In an order issued Monday, the Supreme Court said it decided to rule on the issue presented by his case. Arguments are expected to be heard in the upcoming term that begins in October.

Skinner's lawyers maintain that his rights under the civil rights law were violated by authorities' refusal to grant DNA testing after his conviction.

In the United States, post-conviction DNA testing has exonerated more than 250 people, including 17 prisoners who served time on death row, according to a group called the Innocence Project.

Skinner was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of his girlfriend and her two adult sons on New Year's Eve in 1993 in the small town of Pampa, Texas. He has always maintained his innocence.

Skinner's attorneys are seeking DNA testing of key evidence from the crime scene, including a bloody towel, two knives and a man's windbreaker, and swabs from a rape kit.

Skinner's lawyer at trial did not seek the DNA testing. His attorneys who have been handling his appeals have sought the DNA tests for 10 years, but the state has refused to grant the request.

U.S. courts rejected Skinner's request for the DNA tests on the grounds it cannot be pursued under the federal civil rights law, but must be brought under what is known as a federal habeas challenge.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that convicted criminals do not have a constitutional right to demand that the state conduct DNA testing of evidence. But that case did not involve a death row inmate seeking to prove his innocence.

Prosecutors at trial presented the results of some DNA tests that showed Skinner's presence at the crime scene, which also was his place of residence.

(Editing by Will Dunham)

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