Supeme Court Rules TX Inmate Can Sue For DNA Testing

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, has ruled that Hank Skinner, a Texas inmate, can sue under the federal civil rights act , for refusal to grant his request for DNA testing. The case is Skinner v. Switzer, and the opinion is here. The dissenting justices were Thomas, Scalia and Kennedy.

Texas enacted a law in 2001 allowing post-conviction DNA testing in certain circumstances. Skinner's request was refused by prosecutors who said he should have asked earlier.

Skinner sued under the Civil Rights Act (Section 1983) alleging Texas's statute violated his due process rights. The TX appeals court said his only remedy was a habeas petition. Today, the Supreme Court disagreed, stressing their ruling was narrow and would not open any floodgates (or as Justice Ginsburg put it, even cause any rainfall.) [More...]

The Texas Law, according to Justice Ginsburg, allows testing in limited circumstances:

[The inmate] may show that, at trial, testing either was “not available” or was “available, but not technologically capable of providing probative results.” Art. 64.01(b)(1)(A). Alternatively, he may show that the evidence was not previously tested“through no fault” on his part, and that “the interests of justice” require a postconviction order for testing. Art. 64.01(b)(1)(B).

To grant a motion for postconviction testing, a court must make further findings, prime among them, the movant “would not have been convicted if exculpatory results had been obtained through DNA testing,”and “the [Article 64] request . . . [was] not made to unreasonably delay the execution of sentence or administration of justice.” Art. 64.03(a)(2).

Skinner argued Texas violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The Court distinguished Skinner's claim by saying;

Because this case was resolved on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the question below was “not whether [Skinner] will ultimately prevail” on his procedural due process claim... but whether his complaint was sufficient to cross the federal court’s threshold...

It also noted that Skinner was not challenging the prosecutor's conduct or the lower court's application of the law, but the law itself. The Court said it was ruling only on the jurisdictional issue and on whether Skinner had a claim:

We take up here only the questions whether there is federal-court subject matter jurisdiction over Skinner’s complaint, and whether the claim he presses is cognizable under §1983.


Skinner does not challenge the adverse CCA decisions themselves; instead, he targets as unconstitutional the Texas statute they authoritatively construed. .... a state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts, but a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action. Skinner’s federal case falls within the latter category. There was, therefore, no lack of subject-matter jurisdiction over Skinner’s federal suit.

On using the civil rights statute:

Skinner has properly invoked §1983. Success in his suit for DNA testing would not “necessarily imply” the invalidity of his conviction. While test results might prove exculpatory, that outcome is hardly inevitable; as earlier observed, see supra, at 2, results might prove inconclusive or they might further incriminate Skinner.

His lawyer has issued a statement, which includes the following:

"The Court's action corrects the Fifth Circuit’s fundamental misunderstanding of this important principle. As Justice Ginsberg states in her majority opinion, there is no reason to fear that lawsuits like Mr. Skinner's will overwhelm the federal courts. The high court’s ruling will simply make it possible for Mr. Skinner to vindicate his due process rights in federal court, a right long enjoyed by prisoners in other parts of the country.

"We look forward to making our case in federal court that Texas's inexplicable refusal to grant Mr. Skinner access to evidence for DNA testing is fundamentally unfair and cannot stand."

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    Reagan taught them well (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by mmc9431 on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 03:02:45 PM EST
    We're so worried about people "abusing the system" that we've lost all compassion in our society.

    We'd rather see 1000 innocent people in jail than one guilty one free.

    We'd rather see 1000 kids starving than deal with one family abusing the program

    The same mind set holds true with health care and every other aspect of our culture. We just don't care. Until it hits personally, it's someone elses problem.

    wow (none / 0) (#1)
    by Capt Howdy on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 01:13:42 PM EST
    Skinner's request was refused by prosecutors who said he should have asked earlier.

    that seems sort of amazing

    It does, doesn't it? (none / 0) (#2)
    by Zorba on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 01:39:38 PM EST
    "Sorry!  You're times up!  We don't care that you might be innocent, meaning that the guilty party might still be out there, we just don't want our conviction rate to look bad!"

    Even more amazing (none / 0) (#3)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 01:59:15 PM EST
    Is the couple of paragraphs before that:

    The case that was decided on Monday, Skinner v. Switzer, No. 09-9000, arose from three killings on New Year's Eve in 1993. Mr. Skinner contends that he was asleep on a sofa in a vodka-and-codeine haze that night when his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons were killed. Mr. Skinner says that an uncle of Ms. Busby, Robert Donnell, who has since died, was probably the killer.

    Prosecutors tested some but not all of the evidence from the crime scene. Some of the test results pointed toward Mr. Skinner, who never denied that he was present, but some of the results did not. His trial lawyer, wary of what additional testing would show, did not ask for it.

    And from the MSNBC link I posted in the open thread:

    The court ruled that prisoners may file federal civil rights lawsuits to get DNA material. But at the same time, the court's decision suggests that all a prisoner can claim is that a state failed to follow its own rules for access to DNA evidence. The court's decision today does not recognize a broad constitutional right to seek DNA material.

    Okay, but don't anyone else get any ideas (none / 0) (#4)
    by Yes2Truth on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:00:17 PM EST

    It's as though the SCT is making this gentleman
    a token.

    I don't see (none / 0) (#5)
    by Ga6thDem on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:01:24 PM EST
    why any inmate can't request DNA testing. It's not like the ones that are guilty are going to ask for it anyway.

    I've never understood this, either (none / 0) (#6)
    by Zorba on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:04:54 PM EST
    What is the "worst" that could happen?  That an innocent person could be freed (thereby maybe getting the police to look for the actual perpetrator)?  That an actually guilty person will be confirmed as being guilty?  (Yes, I think that most guilty people would not ask, but you never know- there are some stupid people out there.)  So what is the downside?

    I can definitely see (none / 0) (#7)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:04:54 PM EST
    Some guilty inmates doing this - If it means they get to go for court appearances, it means they get out of their cell for a few hours.

    Besides, if they represent themselves, they have nothing else to do besides research and write briefs.

    Besides, even some guilty people will still argue they aren't.


    So then (none / 0) (#8)
    by Zorba on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:06:51 PM EST
    their guilt is confirmed.  They can then go serve out their term.

    Sure (none / 0) (#9)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:10:07 PM EST
    But the argument was that guilty people wouldn't do this.  

    Of course, there's also a cost for truly guilty inmates to do this as well.  Court time, transport time and cost, personnel time, etc. I don't know how many guilty inmates would do this (and of course, there is no right to just ask for a new DNA test - you have to argue that the state did not follow it's own guidelines, so that's a very narrow class of inmates that this would apply to), but there would be costs involved to prove what was already proven.


    I'm thinking (5.00 / 0) (#10)
    by Ga6thDem on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:16:40 PM EST
    about inmates who didn't have DNA in their court cases already. I'm sure the more recent ones had the latest DNA tests done. Captain Howdy posted a link on the open thread to a guy that spent 30 years in prison and had to fight to get DNA testing done. It seems that people like these should be easily able to get DNA testing done.

    Apparently the innocence project takes a lot of these cases and they took this guy's and that's the only reason he was able to get out of jail.


    48 states (none / 0) (#11)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:24:00 PM EST
    Wow (5.00 / 0) (#12)
    by Ga6thDem on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:30:35 PM EST
    according to your link, the laws are set up to actually keep innocent people in jail not to prevent criminals from getting DNA testing.

    justice (none / 0) (#14)
    by MandT on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 04:48:03 PM EST
    OMG! Actual justice in TX....who knew?

    Scalia dissent? (none / 0) (#15)
    by caramel on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 08:05:28 PM EST
    He did not! Alito dissented.

    Diogenes Theorem (none / 0) (#16)
    by diogenes on Wed Mar 09, 2011 at 10:14:49 PM EST
    People with good karma don't get accused (falsely or not) by police and prosecutors and sent up the river.  Does anyone here really think that the ex-wife was involved in Twyla Busby's murder?  
    From Wikipedia:
    "The advisory also reports that Skinner had previously been convicted for assault  on a police officer as well as several other felonies, that Skinner also had charges pending stemming from assault on two other police officers in Gun Barrel City, Texas, that his ex-wife also testified in court Skinner was abusive to her, and said that she left Skinner after he threatened to use an axe handle to beat her to death. According to Skinner, these accusations of assault were bogus. He writes "When I was arrested, the District Attorney had me under indictment for two felony crimes. He had previously had me arrested for a bogus burglary, but I had demanded the first examining trial in Gray County in seventeen years, before he could get me indicted and proved all his allegations false".[55]
    He also denies having threatened his ex-wife who, in a 2009 television interview, he began blaming as a party to Twila Busby's murder.[56]"

    Re: Stupidity (none / 0) (#17)
    by Harry Saxon on Wed Mar 09, 2011 at 11:37:22 PM EST
    People with good karma don't get accused (falsely or not) by police and prosecutors and sent up the river.  Does anyone here really think that the ex-wife was involved in Twyla Busby's murder?

    There have been plenty of cases where people with 'good karma' have been accused by police and prosecutors and got sent up the river.

    Your theorem fails to account as to why he would want a DNA test done if he was guilty in the first place.