U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Allows State Prisoners to Seek DNA Evidence Through US Civil Rights Law

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A Texas death-row inmate seeking a right to DNA evidence may pursue his claim under the federal civil rights law, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2009 in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne that inmates have no constitutional right to DNA evidence but left open the question whether suits seeking the evidence could be brought under Section 1983. In today’s 6-3 ruling in Skinner v. Switzer, the court allowed the claim.

The suit by inmate Hank Skinner had alleged the Texas DNA statute, as construed by the courts, violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. As a result, there was no bar to federal jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which bars federal trial court review of state judgments, the Supreme Court held.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion (PDF). Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Anthony M. Kennedy.

Skinner was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and two sons in 1995. He admits he was in the house where his girlfriend and her two sons were stabbed to death, but he says the vodka and codeine he ingested that night left him without the physical strength or mental capacity to commit the crime. Skinner’s lawyer had not sought the DNA tests because of fears they would be incriminating.

The state tested some of the blood evidence from the scene, and some of it was incriminating, including bloody palm prints in the room where one victim was killed. But fingerprints on a bag containing one of the knives found at the home were not a match. Left untested were the knives, an axe handle, vaginal swabs from the girlfriend’s body, fingernail clippings and some hair samples. Skinner maintains the likely killer was the girlfriend’s uncle, an ex-con who is no longer alive.

Ginsburg said her opinion does not express any opinion on the ultimate resolution of Skinner’s federal suit.

She discounted the state’s claims that allowing Section 1983 suits for DNA evidence would lead to a proliferation of litigation. “In the circuits that currently allow §1983 claims for DNA testing, … no evidence tendered by [Texas prosecutors] shows any litigation flood or even rainfall,” Ginsburg wrote.

Ginsburg noted that the Prison Litigation Reform Act has placed constraints on prisoner suits to “prevent sportive filings in federal court.”

Thomas argues in dissent that Skinner’s pursuit of a Section 1983 claim, rather than a habeas claim, undermines restrictions on habeas appeals.

“In truth, the majority provides a roadmap for any unsuccessful state habeas petitioner to relitigate his claim under §1983,” Thomas writes. “After state habeas is denied, file a §1983 suit challenging the state habeas process rather than the result. What prisoner would not avail himself of this additional bite at the apple?”

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