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US court to hear Texas death row inmate's DNA case

In a case backed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by a Texas death row inmate who claims DNA evidence could prove his innocence in a triple murder.


AFP - The US Supreme Court has agreed Monday to review the case of a Texas death row inmate who won a last-minute reprieve after France backed calls for new DNA tests.

In March, the court stayed the execution of convicted murderer Hank Skinner less than an hour before he was due to die, after his lawyers and France's ambassador made a plea for further DNA tests.

Skinner says the tests will prove his innocence in the 1993 New Year's Eve triple murder of his girlfriend and her two sons.

Skinner, 47, is married to a French anti-death penalty campaigner he met after he was convicted in 1995 for the killings. The couple, married two years ago, have yet to embrace due to a criminal justice system that requires total physical isolation for death row inmates.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have expressed their support to Skinner's French wife, Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner. France abolished capital punishment in 1981.

The court is now due to take up the case in its new session which will open later this year.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Mr. Skinner's appeal," his lawyer Rob Owen said in a statement.

"That decision represents the necessary first step to our eventually obtaining the DNA testing that Mr. Skinner has long sought."

The Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles rejected Skinner's DNA test request, leaving his fate in the hands of the US Supreme Court and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Texas leads all other US states in the number of people it has executed -- 457 since 1976, including 10 so far this year.

In recent years, 17 US death row prisoners have been released after DNA tests proved their innocence.

Some DNA evidence was presented during Skinner's trial to ascertain that he had been present in his home in the Texas town of Pampa when the murders were committed -- a point the defense never contested.

But he says that a third person must have committed the murders because he had passed out under the influence of anti-anxiety medication, painkillers and alcohol at the time. Blood tests at the time confirmed the presence of the drugs in his bloodstream.

Skinner's defense insists he was physically incapable of killing his girlfriend Twila Jean Busby, 40 -- who was fatally beaten with an axe handle -- and her two sons, aged 20 and 22, who were stabbed to death.

Ten years ago Skinner won the support of David Protess, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, who re-examined the case with his students and the DNA evidence, and concluded Skinner is innocent.

The journalism professor also noted that Skinner's alleged victim had complained on the night of the murder of being harassed by her uncle, who has a violent past but was not questioned during the investigation into her murder.

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