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Supreme Court Allows § 1983 Challenge to Texas Post-Conviction DNA Testing Law

Supreme Court Allows § 1983 Challenge to Texas Post-Conviction DNA Testing Law

On March 7, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a Texas prisoner could challenge the due process he received under Texas’ post-conviction DNA testing statute, Article 64 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, as that statute was interpreted by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest appellate court for criminal matters.

Henry W. Skinner, a Texas state prisoner, was convicted of murdering his live-in girlfriend and her two sons, and sentenced to death. Skinner claimed he was incapacitated by large amounts of drugs and alcohol when the crime occurred and pointed to his girlfriend’s uncle, an ex-con with a history of physical and sexual abuse, as the likely perpetrator.

The crime scene was rife with evidence, including blood smears and splatters, bloody palm and finger prints, hair, knives and an axe handle. Police found Skinner standing in a closet wearing blood-soaked socks and bloodstained jeans. They tested some hairs and blood stains on Skinner’s clothes and a blanket, and made fingerprint comparisons. A bloody palm print implicated Skinner, but fingerprints on a plastic bag containing a knife did not. Other items such as the axe handle, vaginal swabs, fingernail clippings and additional hair samples were not tested.

Skinner twice filed motions for DNA testing under Article 64. The first motion was denied because, according to the state district court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, he had failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that he would not have been convicted if the DNA test results were exculpatory. His second motion was filed after Skinner learned, during discovery in a federal post-conviction proceeding, that he and the victims had been excluded as the source of hair found in his girlfriend’s right hand. The appellate court upheld the denial of the second motion because Skinner had failed to meet the “no fault” requirement. Skinner then filed a § 1983 action in federal court.

The federal district court dismissed his suit, holding that pursuant to Kutzner v. Montgomery County, 303 F.3d 339 (5th Cir. 2002), requests for DNA evidence had to be brought via habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Skinner appealed. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal and Skinner filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Ruth Ginsburg, the Supreme Court held that Skinner could raise his claims in a § 1983 action. The Court found that Skinner’s claims were not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which prohibits a losing party in state court from seeking review of the state court judgment in a lower federal court. Noting that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine had only been applied by the Supreme Court to the Rooker and Feldman cases and was much narrower than lower courts generally thought, the Supreme Court held it did not bar Skinner’s suit because he challenged a statute governing a state court decision and not the decision itself.

The Supreme Court reiterated that an action that will necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of a state criminal conviction may not be filed under § 1983. Drawing an analogy to challenges to state parole law procedures which could be brought under § 1983 pursuant to Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74 (2005) [PLN, Aug. 2005, p.28], the Court noted that Skinner’s action would not necessarily result in his immediate or earlier release because the outcome of the DNA testing might be inconclusive or incriminating.

Therefore, Skinner could proceed under § 1983. The judgment of the Fifth Circuit was reversed and the case remanded to that court for further proceedings. See: Skinner v. Switzer, 131 S.Ct. 1289 (2011).

Said Skinner in an earlier interview with CNN, “all the District Attorney’s gotta do is turn over the [DNA] evidence, test it and let the chips fall where they may. If I’m innocent I go home, if I’m guilty I die ... what’s so hard about that?”

Additional source: CNN

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Related legal case

Skinner v. Switzer