UT’s Capital Punishment Clinic Wins Before Supreme Court

UT's Capital Punishment Clinic team in front of the Supreme Court

The Capital Punishment Clinic housed within the UT Law School scored a win this week when the Supreme Court decided that a prisoner it represented had the right to obtain DNA testing in his case.

The Supreme Court decided in Skinner v. Switzer that Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner could have access to evidence testing, reversing an earlier decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Skinner was convincted and sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of his girlfriend and her two adult sons in the Panhandle town of Pampa, Texas. He has maintained his innocence.

The decision “brings the Fifth Circuit back into the mainstream” after recent decisions had gotten out of step with other courts in the country on related issues, says Capital Punishment Clinic co-founder Rob Owen.

“It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this decision for our client,” he says. “As far as its wider implications, it’s consistent with the broader social movement toward making DNA testing as widely available as possible. Our case contributes to that in a good way, however slightly.”

Owen argued the case before the highest court, but UT students were instrumental in preparing him for questioning from the justices.

Second-year student Tania Culbertson was among those who questioned Owen during a first “moot” at UT and traveled to the final one at New York University. It was fascinating to see how the arguments were refined, she says.

Culbertson also attended the hearing before the Supreme Court — the pinnacle, she says, of her law school experience.

“The whole atmosphere of the court — all of us were just overwhelmed and thrilled,” she says. “And then there was such a sense of joy and relief afterward. UT is lucky to have the clinic here. That kind of practical experience is invaluable.”

This marks the fourth time in seven years that the Capital Punishment Clinic has been involved in a winning case before the Supreme Court.

“It’s important that the flagship university in the state system be involved in training lawyers about the legal issues related to capital punishment since Texas is one of the places in the country where the death penalty is used with the greatest regularity,” Owen says. “It is a profound issue, both morally and legally.”

Photo of clinic students outside the Supreme Court courtesy UT Law


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