Skinner v. Switzer

PETITIONER: Henry W. Skinner
RESPONDENT: Lynn Switzer, District Attorney for the 31st Judicial District of Texas
LOCATION: US District Court, Northern District of Texas

DOCKET NO.: 09-9000
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 562 US 521 (2011)
GRANTED: May 24, 2010
ARGUED: Oct 13, 2010
DECIDED: Mar 07, 2011

Gregory S. Coleman - for the respondent
Robert C. Owen - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

A Texas state court convicted Henry Skinner of capital murder and sentenced him to death. Subsequently, Mr. Skinner brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against the prosecuting attorney in a Texas federal district court alleging that his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment were violated when the district attorney refused to allow him access to biological evidence for DNA testing. The district court dismissed the case. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court held that circuit precedent established that Mr. Skinner's claim was not cognizable as a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, but instead must be brought as a petition for writ of habeas corpus.


Can 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?

Media for Skinner v. Switzer

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 13, 2010 in Skinner v. Switzer

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 07, 2011 in Skinner v. Switzer

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

We resolve in this case a question the Court last opened two terms ago in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne when a convicted state prisoner seeks DNA testing of crime-scene evidence, what remedial route should he follow?

May he assert the claim in a civil rights action on the 42 U.S.C, Section 1983 or is his sole recourse in federal court a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C 2254 which entails restrictions not applicable in 1983 actions.

In 1995, a Texas jury convicted petitioner Henry Skinner and sentenced him to death for murdering his girlfriend and her two sons.

Throughout, Skinner has maintained that a potent alcohol and drug mix, he ingested on the day of the murders, disabled him from committing the crimes.

He identified as the likely perpetrator his girlfriend's uncle, an ex-convict with a history of physical and sexual abuse.

Prior to Skinner's trial, the state DNA tested some of the crime-scene evidence but left many items untested.

Skinner wants the state to test the untested items.

He pursued informal efforts to that and in the decade following his conviction to no avail.

In 2001, Texas enacted a law allowing prisoners to gain postconviction DNA testing in limited circumstances.

Invoking the Texas statute, Skinner twice moved in state court for DNA testing of the untested crime-scene evidence.

When those efforts failed, Skinner filed the instant federal action for injunctive relief under Section 1983, naming as defendant respondent Lynn Switzer, the District Attorney whose office is custodian of the evidence Skinner wants to have DNA tested.

Skinner centrally urged that Texas' postconviction DNA statute "as construed" by Texas Courts, denied him procedural due process.

Under Fifth Circuit precedent, habeas corpus, not 1983 is the remedial avenue, prisoners seeking DNA testing must pursue.

The District Court therefore, dismissed Skinner's suit, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

We stayed Skinner's execution, granted certiorari, and now reversed.

This Court's 2005 opinion in Wilkinson v. Dotson, comprehensively surveyed a prior decisions on the respective provinces of 1983 civil right actions and 2254 federal habeas petitions.

Habeas is the exclusive remedy we reaffirmed for the prisoner who seeks "immediate or speedier release" from confinement.

But where the prisoner's claim would not "necessarily spell speedier release," suit may be brought under 1983.

Adhering to Dotson, we hold today that a postconviction claim for DNA testing is properly pursued in a 1983 action.

Success in the suit gains for the prisoner only access to the DNA evidence, which may prove exculpatory, inculpatory or inconclusive.

In no event will a judgment that simply orders DNA test "necessarily imply the unlawfulness of the State's custody."

District Attorney's Switzer argued that although Skinner's immediate plea is simply for DNA testing, his ultimate aim is to use the test results as a platform to attack his conviction.

But Switzer has found no case, nor have we, in which this Court has recognized habeas as the sole remedy, or even an available one where the relief sought would not immediately terminate, or limit the level of custody, or accelerate the date of release.

We express no opinion on the ultimate disposition of Skinner's federal action.

We know however, that the Court's decision in Osborne severely limits the scope of the federal action a state prisoner may bring for DNA testing.

Osborne rejected the extension of substantive due process to this area, and left slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing stat -- state law denies him procedural due process.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Kennedy and Justice Alito joined.