The US Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the execution of a convicted murderer in Texas less than an hour before he was due to die after a plea from France and his lawyers to allow further DNA tests.
Henry “Hank” Skinner claims that new DNA tests will prove he did not commit the New Year’s Eve 1993 triple murder for which he was sentenced to death.
“He said he didn’t expect to get a stay, he expected to be executed,” Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said.
Upon hearing news of the stay, Clark said, Skinner “felt weak in the knees, he felt like he really won.”
Skinner, 47, who is now married to a French anti-death penalty campaigner, was convicted in Texas at a 1995 jury trial for the killings of his girlfriend and her two sons in his home.
He had been scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 6:00 pm (2300 GMT) at the prison in Huntsville, Texas.
The Supreme Court must now decide if it will take up the case on the merits, otherwise a new execution date will be decided, the justices said in a brief decision.
“We are relieved that the US Supreme Court has intervened to prevent Mr. Skinner’s execution,” said defense attorney Rob Owen.
The stay “suggests that the court believes there are important issues that require closer examination.
“We remain hopeful that the court will agree to hear Mr. Skinner’s case and ultimately allow him the chance to prove his innocence through DNA testing,” Owen said.
Skinner, who has proclaimed his innocence since his arrest, claims that DNA testing on items that were not examined during his trial will clear him.
Earlier Wednesday the French ambassador in Washington contacted Texas Governor Rick Perry urging a stay of execution.
Both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have expressed their support to Skinner’s French wife, Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner.
“Our ambassador in Washington has contacted the governor of Texas to request a reprieve for Mr. Skinner and that his request for an additional inquiry be accepted,” said foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
France abolished capital punishment in 1981.
The Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles on Sunday rejected Skinner’s DNA test request, leaving his fate in the hands of the US Supreme Court and Governor Perry.
In recent years, 17 US death row prisoners have been released after DNA testing 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 attracted 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 was not questioned during the investigation into her murder.