U.S. Supreme Court

Texas death row inmate can pursue challenge to DNA testing procedure, Supreme Court rules

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AP Rodney Reed

Death row inmate Rodney Reed waves to his family in the Bastrop County District Court in Bastrop, Texas, in October 2017. Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell/The Austin American-Statesman via the Associated Press.

A Texas death row inmate didn’t wait too long to challenge the state law governing postconviction DNA testing, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a 6-3 decision.

The Supreme Court said the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans was wrong when it held that the statute of limitations began to run after a Texas trial court ruled against inmate Rodney Reed’s request for additional testing.

In the April 19 opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court said the clock started to run at a later date—the end of the state court litigation, which happened when Texas’ top criminal appeals court denied a rehearing. Kavanaugh’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Reed said DNA testing could establish his innocence in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites. He sought testing of more than 40 pieces of evidence, including a belt used to strangle the woman.

Reed said he was having an affair with Stites, and that is why semen with his DNA was found in her body. Reed’s lawyers are pointing to the woman’s fiance, a former police officer, as a possible suspect. The former officer pleaded guilty in 2008 for kidnapping and improper sexual conduct with a woman while on duty.

The Texas trial court had ruled that the belt and other items could not be tested because they were not preserved through an adequate chain of custody. After losing at the state-court level, Reed argued in federal court that the stringent chain-of-custody requirement was unconstitutional under the due process clause.

Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito filed separate dissents. Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Alito’s dissent.

Thomas argued that federal district courts lack appellate jurisdiction to review state-court judgments. Alito said the majority was “clearly wrong” in its decision on when the limitations period began to run.

Reed has garnered support from public figures that include Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, reality TV star Kim Kardashian and former talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

Then-ABA President Judy Perry Martinez had urged the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend executive clemency for Reed in November 2019, days before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Reed’s execution to consider his claim of actual innocence.

The case is Reed v. Goertz.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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