Skinner v. Switzer: The Peculiar Problem of Post-Conviction Access to DNA Evidence
Kevin Paget, Research Attorney
Skinner v. Switzer may be the opening salvo in a new war commenced by defense counsel across the country – a war on the access of DNA evidence.1 In this landmark ruling on March 7, 2011 the Supreme Court held that prisoners can file post-conviction civil suits in order to gain access to DNA evidence that was not tested during the initial trial.2 DNA evidence has been a point of contention between prosecutors and defense counsel for more than two decades, when DNA fingerprints were first admitted as evidence in courtroom.3 A key battle that has come to light recently is the fight over untested DNA evidence, and whether prisoners have a right to access this potential exculpatory evidence. In the 2009 case District Attorney's Office for Third Judicial Dist. V. Osborne, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that a prisoner had a constitutional right to certain biological evidence in the prosecutor's possession.4 However, the Court in Osborne did not rule on the issue of whether suits seeking DNA evidence could be brought under a Section 1983 claim, or whether they had to traverse the traditional route of a federal habeas corpus action.5 Where federal habeas actions operate under narrow rules, making it challenging for prisoners to obtain the biological evidence they seek, a Section 1983 due process claim may allow these prisoners another vehicle to attain the evidence, or at least a mechanism to circumvent the habeas action altogether.6 The Court ruled in Skinner that Section 1983 claims for DNA evidence were in fact proper, albeit in narrowly tailored situations.
Justice Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that federal habeas petitions are, as previously affirmed by the Court, the exclusive remedy for prisoners seeking "immediate or speedier release" from incarceration.7 Conversely, if a prisoner's claim would not seek this "speedier release", Section 1983 would be the proper vehicle to bring this claim, for this civil suit would only allow the prisoner access to the DNA evidence, "which may prove exculpatory, inculpatory, or inconclusive;" meaning the civil suit resulting from a Section 1983 action will not presumptively prove guilt or innocence, it will only allow the prisoner access to the information.8
The underlying facts of the case are as follows: In 1995 Henry Skinner was sentenced to death for the murder of his girlfriend and her two sons. Skinner did not deny his presence where the killings took place, but rather claimed he was incapacitated by drugs and alcohol and was therefore unable to commit the murders. While preparing for the trial, the State tested (1) blood from Skinner's clothing and (2) hair and blood recovered from one of the victims. Some evidence implicated Skinner, such as a bloody palm print, but other evidence, including "fingerprints on a bag containing one of the knives" did not. Other items were left untested, including "vaginal swabs, fingernail clippings and additional hair samples."9
During the ensuing years of his incarceration Skinner sought access to this untested biological evidence to no avail. In 2001 the state of Texas enacted a statute allowing prisoners post-conviction DNA testing in specific instances. The Criminal Court of Appeals held that Skinner did not meet either criteria of the statute and denied his access to the DNA evidence, citing that Skinner's trial counsel chose not to have the materials tested for fear the DNA would implicate his client.
Skinner next brought a Section 1983 action claiming his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights were violated when the District Attorney in custody of the DNA evidence would not provide access to this evidence. Holding that federal habeas corpus actions, and not Section 1983 claims, were the appropriate channel for post-conviction DNA requests, the case was dismissed in district court and later affirmed on appeal.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear this case, over the argument from respondent that Skinner's challenge was barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine jurisdictionally bars lower federal courts from reviewing state court judgments, and the respondent therefore argued that the district court had no subject-matter to hear Skinner's challenge. The Court held that Skinner did not challenge the adverse decisions themselves, but rather attacked the Texas statute underlying the rulings as unconstitutional, therefore the district court had subject-matter jurisdiction over the suit.
In light of the respondent's claim that federal habeas actions, and not Section 1983 due process claims, are the proper vehicle to obtain post-conviction DNA evidence, the majority held this was not the case, citing several issues. First, the respondent offered no evidence to support the claim that allowing Section 1983 actions would inundate the court with DNA testing claims. Next, the Court noted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) has placed significant constraints on prisoner suits filed in federal court. And lastly, the Court found no concern that allowing Section 1983 claims for DNA testing would affect claims based on Brady v. Maryland.10 Brady claims ban withholding favorable evidence from an accused which might materially affect his guilt or punishment. The Court distinguished Brady from the current proceedings by noting that a successful Brady claim necessarily produces evidence that will undermine a conviction, while a Section 1983 claim in this instance will only allow the prisoner to obtain the DNA evidence that "may yield exculpatory, incriminating, or inconclusive results."11 The Section 1983 claim will not prove guilt or innocence; it will only allow access to the biological evidence for testing.
In a dissenting opinion, Justices Thomas, Kennedy and Alito noted their fear that despite the majority's finding that there was no evidence to show that courts would overfill with Section 1983 civil rights claims due to this ruling, a flood would indeed be coming. The dissent wrote that after a prisoner has availed himself of his federal habeas action and failed, this ruling allows him another claim to bring, in an effort to get an "additional bite of the apple."12
It remains to be seen what effect the Skinner ruling will actually have on the judicial system. Perhaps it will allow prisoners who did not have access to DNA evidence at trial the ability to exonerate themselves through the ability of post-conviction testing. Or perhaps, as the dissent believes, this will be an avenue pursued by prisoners to undermine the restrictions on habeas appeals, log-jamming an already overcrowded court system with redundant litigation. Either way, it appears the judicial gates have opened ever so slightly, and the legal community waits with baited breath to see how the prisoners demanding post-conviction DNA testing will emerge on the other side.
1 Skinner v. Switzer, No. 09-9000 (March 7, 2011).
3 Llnl.gov, The DNA Fingerprint and Criminal Evidence, http://education.llnl.gov/bep/socsci/11/tEvi.html (Last accessed March 11, 2011).
4 District Attorney's Officer for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 129 S.Ct. 2308 (2009).
5 ABA Journal, Supreme Court Allows State Prisoners to Seek DNA Evidence Through US Civil Rights Law, http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_allows_state_prisoners_to_seek_dna_evidence_through_us_civil_/ (March 7, 2011).
7 Supra n. 1.
8 Supra n. 1.
9 Supra n. 1.
10 Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)
11 Supra n. 1.
12 Supra n. 1.