Oral argument: Oct. 13, 2010
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Feb. 2, 2010)
FEDERAL HABEAS CORPUS, CIVIL RIGHTS, DNA TESTING, CAPITAL MURDER
Florida convicted petitioner Henry Skinner of capital murder and sentenced him to death. Although Skinner admits that he was present at the scene of the murders, he maintains his innocence. Skinner now seeks access to biological evidence for DNA testing, which he claims will prove that he is innocent of the murders. After unsuccessfully filing two habeas corpus claims, Skinner filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim to attempt to gain access to the evidence. The Fifth Circuit denied Skinner’s motion to stay his execution, but Skinner appealed that decision and the Supreme Court agreed to hear Skinner’s case. The Court must now decide whether a demand for access to biological evidence may be brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or whether the claim falls within the realm of habeas corpus law and was thus improperly filed. The Supreme Court’s decision will not only decide Skinner’s fate, but also clarify the scope and procedure of habeas corpus claims.
May a convicted prisoner seeking access to biological evidence for DNA testing assert that claim in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or is such a claim cognizable only in a petition for writ of habeas corpus?
Must a convicted capital murderer bring a federal habeas corpus claim in order to assert his due process right to access to DNA evidence, or may he bring his claim as a civil rights violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983?
In 1995, Henry Skinner was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two sons in their Pampa, Texas home, and sentenced to death. See Brief for Petitioner, Henry W. Skinner at 2. Skinner maintains that he is innocent of the murders. See id. at 3. He asserts that DNA evidence recovered at the scene will show that he was too intoxicated to commit the murders. See id. Skinner also claims that a hand injury would have prevented him from committing the murders. See id. Blood found on Skinner’s clothing showed that Skinner had contact with the victims after they sustained injuries, but, according to the state’s DNA expert, did not conclusively prove Skinner committed the murders. See id.
Skinner filed a motion for federal habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, but the court decided that his conviction was constitutional and denied relief. See Skinner v. Quarterman, 576 F.3d 214 (5th Cir. 2009). In 2001 and 2007, Skinner filed motions demanding DNA testing of the evidence recovered at the scene that was never tested, but the motions were both denied. See Brief for Petitioner at 5–6. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the denials. See id.
Skinner subsequently filed a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, alleging that he is entitled to access to biological evidence for DNA testing. See Skinner v. Switzer, 2010 WL 273143 at *3 (N.D.Tex. Jan 15, 2010). He claims that withholding that evidence violates his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and his right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. See id.
District Attorney Lynn Switzer filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that under Heck v. Humphrey, the Supreme Court emphasized that a habeas corpus motion is the sole avenue through which a prisoner may challenge the fact or duration of his imprisonment. See Skinner v. Switzer, 2010 WL 273143 at *3. The federal dge held that there is no substantive due process right to access to DNA evidence, and recommended dismissal of Skinner’s claim. See id. at 12. The district court judge accepted the magistrate’s recommendation, and dismissed the complaint. See Skinner v. Switzer, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3997 (N.D. Tex., Jan. 20, 2010).
Skinner appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of the execution so he could argue his Section 1983 claim. See Skinner v. Switzer, 363 Fed. Appx. 302, 303 (5th Cir. 2010). The Fifth Circuit denied Skinner's motion to stay execution, as there was no habeas corpus motion pending, which would be the necessary motion to stay execution. See id. Skinner conceded that his Section 1983 case was contrary to the law of the Fifth Circuit, and that he planned to appeal this issue to the Supreme Court before his execution date. See id. As the date for execution was set for February 24, 2010, the Fifth Circuit denied Skinner’s motion to expedite appeal within the Fifth Circuit, so that he could appeal to the Supreme Court more promptly. See id. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, and Skinner’s possible execution awaits the Court’s decision. See Skinner v. Switzer, 130 S.Ct. 3323 (2010).
This case will address whether a convicted individual may invoke 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to access biological evidence for DNA testing, or whether federal habeas corpus law is the appropriate avenue through which the evidence must be requested. The ruling in this case will determine whether a claim for biological evidence may be brought under federal civil rights law, which will have procedural implications for convicted criminals and victims. If the Supreme Court allows Henry Skinner to bring his claim under Section 1983, another avenue of review will be available to convicted felons, which may increase the number of such claims. The ruling will also affect the scope and import of federal habeas corpus law, which could cause infringement by the federal government on state rights.
The Criminal District Attorney of Tarrant County opposes Skinner's claim on the grounds that it will produce burdensome litigation and create numerous legal issues requiring resolution. See Brief for Criminal District Attorney of Tarrant County in Support of Respondent at 23–28. Such legal issues might include when a cause of action accrues for purposes of the statute of limitations, whether the criminal defendant is the proper defendant, and what sort of damages might be available to an exonerated party. See id. at 27–31. The National District Attorney’s Association adds that litigation would become more burdensome because it would create the opportunity for numerous Section 1983 suits. See Brief for Amicus Curiae National District Attorney’s Association in Support of Respondent at 19.
Skinner responds that most circuits already allow similar claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Brief for Petitioner, Henry W. Skinner at 32. He asserts that under DistrictAttorney'fice for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne, which defines the contours of such claims, many cases are already eligible under Section 1983. See id. DefrostingColdCases.com argues that access to biological evidence for a death row inmate is a civil right that should be respected, and allowing a Section 1983 claim is another procedural protection for Skinner. See DNA: A Civil Right? Other prisoners on death row would have further opportunities to pursue their demands for access to evidence after they exhausted their habeas claims. See id.
Role of Habeas Corpus Law
Under federal habeas corpus law, a prisoner may challenge the legality of the convicted party's arrest, detention, or imprisonment. See Wex, Habeas Corpus. Skinner claims that his request for DNA evidence is not a challenge to the validity of his conviction; rather, he seeks only access to biological evidence. See Brief for Petitioner at 17. Skinner argues that forcing a suit for access to evidence to be brought under habeas corpus law would introduce a new type of claim into habeas law and expand the historic limits of the writ. See id. at 28. Skinner warns of breaking from the historical roots of habeas law, a move which is properly within Congress' authority, not the Supreme Court. See id.
Respondent Lynn Switzer counters that Skinner’s claim is merely a challenge to his sentence, and that Skinner pleaded the claim in such a way as to disguise the fact that it is a challenge to the sentence. See Brief for Respondent, Lynn Switzer at 15. The National District Attorneys Association agrees, contending that the challenge is essentially a claim based on improper discovery, which is the crux of habeas law. See Brief for Amicus Curiae National District Attorneys Association in Support of Respondent at 15. According to 22 states’ attorneys general, if the Court allows this Section 1983 claim, Skinner will be skirting the procedural protections that respect the state court's ruling on the evidence, and put appeals before the state court that heard the case. See Brief for Amici Curiae the States of Alaska, et al. in Support of Respondent at 5.
Switzer argues that a ruling for Skinner would disrupt the balance between state and federal authority. See Brief for Respondent at 16. Federalism preserves the power of the states in various ways, and the power reserved for the states is an important protection against unchecked power of the federal government. See Wex, Federalism. The National Crime Victim Law Institute Supporting Victims also point out that crime victims’ rights are protected by habeas proceedings, because they provide the notice and privacy protection of a well-established procedure. See Brief for Amicus Curiae National Crime Victim Law Institute Supporting Victims in Support of Respondent at 4.
This case attempts to determine when the Heck exception should apply to federal petitions for relief. The Heck exception attempts to separate 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suits from habeas corpus suits. Section 1983 allows an individual to sue for violations of his civil rights. The Heck exception prevents a prisoner from suing under Section 1983 if the successful suit would necessarily imply that the prisoner's conviction is unlawful, and thus should be property brought as a habeas corpus claim. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 487 (1994). Petitioner Henry Skinner claims that the Heck exception does not apply because the actual immediate consequence of his successful suit would not involve the invalidity of his conviction. In contrast, Lynn Switzer argues that the Heck exception should apply because necessary components of Skinner’s successful suit would imply the invalidity of his prison sentence.
Does the Heck Exception Preclude a Section 1983 Claim in this Case?
The Heck exception prevents a prisoner from suing under Section 1983 if the successful suit would "necessarily imply" that the prisoner's conviction is unlawful. See Heck, 512 U.S. at 487. Skinner argues that Heck does not apply. See Brief for Petitioner at 16. He explains that because he does not know the results of testing the requested DNA evidence it is impossible to know whether such access would help or hinder any attempt to challenge his conviction. See id. at 19. He notes, therefore, that access to DNA evidence does not "necessarily imply" that he is challenging his conviction. See id. Skinner's interpretation of "necessarily imply" comes from his reading of Wilkinson v. Dotson, in which the Heck exception did not prevent two prisoners from challenging Ohio's parole eligibility guidelines. See Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74 (2005). In Dotson, the immediate consequences of the prisoners' suits would not have implied that their extended sentences were invalid. See Brief for Petitioner at 14–15. Skinner’s argument is supported in every circuit court of appeals that has considered this issue, with the exception of the Fifth Circuit. See id. at 21. Skinner also argues that the Fifth Circuit's reading of Heck contradicts the precedent set by the Supreme Court in Dotson. See id. at 24. He asserts that the Supreme Court jurisprudence on this issue is clear and that a claim asserting a due process right to access to evidence does not necessarily imply the validity of the claimant's sentence or conviction. See id.
Switzer presents a different interpretation of Heck's "necessarily imply" test. See Brief for Respondent at 21. Switzer argues that the test does not hinge on the desired relief. See id. Instead, the analysis turns on "the connection between the claim asserted and release from confinement." See id. Switzer argues that if any "necessary component or allegation of the claim implies that the underlying conviction is invalid" then the claim cannot proceed as a Section 1983 claim and must be filed under habeas corpus. See id. at 22.
Does Skinner's Section 1983 Claim Challenge the Validity of his Conviction?
Skinner argues that his requested relief is merely access to the DNA evidence. See Brief for Petitioner at 17. Skinner asserts that if his suit is successful, Switzer would only be forced to hand over DNA evidence. See id. The DNA evidence may not provide any exculpable proof that would affect Skinner's sentence. See id. at 18. Even if the DNA shows that Skinner is innocent, Skinner would still be forced to file more legal proceedings. See id. Finally, those legal proceedings have a high threshold of proof and would not necessarily result in a change to Skinner's sentence. See id.
Switzer asserts that Skinner's claim "inextricably" attacks his conviction. See Brief for Respondent at 26. Switzer argues that Skinner’s innocence is a necessary component of Skinner’s claim because a court, in order to grant Skinner access to the DNA evidence, would have to assume that the evidence would prove exculpable. See id. at 26–27. She explains that Skinner is essentially attacking his conviction because the Section 1983 claim asserts his liberty interest in proving his innocence. See id. at 26. Switzer, referring to District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne, argues that because the DNA evidence sought by Skinner has "material bearing" on his conviction, it therefore falls within the confines of habeas corpus, not Section 1983. 129 S.Ct. 2308, 2325 (2009); see id. Switzer contends that Osborne established that a claimant does "not have a freestanding postconviction federal right to access DNA evidence." See Brief for Respondent at 27. Furthermore, Switzer argues that the district court reviewed the evidence supporting Skinner's conviction and determined that the requested DNA evidence would not cast doubt on his conviction. See id. at 33. Thus, in giving Skinner access to the DNA evidence, it would imply that the district court was wrong and that doubt exists in the evidence supporting Skinner's conviction. See id. at 33.
Would a Ruling for Skinner Violate Principles of Comity or Stare Decisis?
Skinner asserts that his Section 1983 claim does not violate principles of comity, under which the decisions of a court in one jurisdiction are respected by a court in another jurisdiction. See Brief for Petitioner at 33. He explains that Osborne protects principles of comity by requiring that any claimant that is asserting a federal due process right to access to evidence must first invoke state procedures. See id. at 34. Thus, Skinner reasons, that there is no threat that a Section 1983 claim would violate principles of comity by bypassing state courts. See id. at 35.
Switzer argues that a ruling for Skinner would violate principles of comity. See Brief for Respondent at 18. Switzer contends that a comity issue exists because using Section 1983 claims to obtain access to DNA evidence may require federal courts to intervene in state criminal proceedings. See id. She argues that Skinner's Section 1983 civil rights claim amounts to a collateral attack on state courts' requirement that DNA testing not have the potential to prove a claimant's innocence. See id. at 42. Switzer explains that Skinner's claim will evade the "exhaustion requirement" by alleging in federal court that Texas's evidence procedure violated his due process rights without first raising this issue in a Texas court. See id. Switzer admits that federal habeas corpus proceedings also interfere with state criminal proceedings but they have a number of restrictions designed to limit federal interference. See id. at 18.
Skinner also asserts that an affirmation of the Fifth Circuit's decision would violate principles of stare decisis. See Brief for Petitioner at 35. He explains that stare decisis demands that the precedents established by the Court be respected. See id. He argues that historically the Supreme Court "has been careful not to impose limitations on prisoner claims under § 1983." See id. at 36. Skinner contends that to deviate from the Heck doctrine to prevent Section 1983 claims seeking DNA testing "would amount to unwarranted judicial intrusion into an area best left to the political process." See id. He argues that to deny Section 1983 claims in this context would also eliminate a vital avenue for asserting constitutional rights. See id.
Switzer, unlike Skinner, believes that a Section 1983 claim here would violate precedent by undermining the legal principles established in Osborne. See Brief for Respondent at 43. Switzer explains Skinner's request for access for DNA evidence should not be adjudicated in federal court. See id. She argues that the Supreme Court in Osborne declared that "state legislatures should be allowed to take the lead in developing systems and procedures to deal with the power of DNA testing." See id.
The case will determine whether a claim for access to DNA evidence may be brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or whether such a claim is solely within the realm of federal habeas corpus law. The outcome of the case will impact the scope and nature of federal habeas corpus law, and impact the procedural nature of similar cases in the future.
Edited by: Kate Hajjar
· Wex: Habeas Corpus
· Wex: Civil Rights
· Human Genome Project: DNA Forensics
· Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dave Montgomery: U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Texas Death Row Inmate’s Case (May 24, 2010)