Skinner v. Switzer

Decision Date07 March 2011
Docket NumberNo. 09–9000.,09–9000.
Citation562 U.S. 521,179 L.Ed.2d 233,131 S.Ct. 1289
Parties Henry W. SKINNER, Petitioner, v. Lynn SWITZER, District Attorney for the 31st Judicial District of Texas.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Robert C. Owen, Austin, TX, appointed by this Court, for petitioner.

Gregory S. Coleman, Austin, TX, for respondent.

Robert C. Owen, Counsel of Record, Austin, TX, Douglas G. Robinson, Washington, D.C., Maria Cruz Melendez, New York, N.Y., for Petitioner.

Mark D. White, Sprouse Shrader Smith P.C., Amarillo, TX, Gregory S. Coleman, Counsel of Record, Edward C. Dawson, Richard B. Farrer, Yetter Coleman LLP, Austin, TX, for Respondent.

Justice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted review in this case to decide a question presented, but left unresolved, in District Attorney's Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 557 U.S. 52, ––––, 129 S.Ct. 2308, 2318–19, 174 L.Ed.2d 38 (2009): May a convicted state prisoner seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence assert that claim in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or is such a claim cognizable in federal court only when asserted in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 ? The Courts of Appeals have returned diverse responses. Compare McKithen v. Brown, 481 F.3d 89, 99 (C.A.2 2007) (claim seeking DNA testing is cognizable under § 1983 ); Savory v. Lyons, 469 F.3d 667, 669 (C.A.7 2006) (same); Bradley v. Pryor, 305 F.3d 1287, 1290–1291 (C.A.11 2002) (same), with Harvey v. Horan, 278 F.3d 370, 375 (C.A.4 2002) (claim is not cognizable under § 1983 ) and Kutzner v. Montgomery County, 303 F.3d 339, 341 (C.A.5 2002)(per curiam) (same).

In Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 125 S.Ct. 1242, 161 L.Ed.2d 253 (2005), we comprehensively surveyed this Court's decisions on the respective provinces of § 1983 civil rights actions and § 2254 federal habeas petitions. Habeas is the exclusive remedy, we reaffirmed, for the prisoner who seeks "immediate or speedier release" from confinement. Id., at 82, 125 S.Ct. 1242. Where the prisoner's claim would not "necessarily spell speedier release," however, suit may be brought under § 1983. Ibid . Adhering to our opinion in Dotson, we hold 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 tests "necessarily impl[y] the unlawfulness of the State's custody." Id., at 81, 125 S.Ct. 1242. We note, however, that the Court's decision in Osborne severely limits the federal action a state prisoner may bring for DNA testing. Osborne rejected the extension of substantive due process to this area, 557 U.S., at ––––, 129 S.Ct., at 2322, and left slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process, see id., at ––––, 129 S.Ct., at 2321.


In 1995, a Texas jury convicted petitioner Henry Skinner and sentenced him to death for murdering his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons. Busby was bludgeoned and choked with an axe handle and her sons were stabbed to death; the murders were committed in the house Busby shared with Skinner.

Skinner never denied his presence in the house when the killings occurred. He claimed, however, that he was incapacitated by large quantities of alcohol and codeine. The potent alcohol and drug mix, Skinner maintained at trial, rendered him physically unable to commit the brutal murders charged against him. Skinner identified, as a likely perpetrator, Busby's uncle, Robert Donnell (now deceased), an ex-convict with a history of physical and sexual abuse.1 On direct appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) affirmed Skinner's conviction and sentence. Skinner v. State, 956 S.W.2d 532, 546 (1997). The CCA's opinion described the crime-scene evidence in detail:

"As they approached the house ..., the police noticed a trail of blood spots on the ground running from the front porch to the fence line. There was a blood smear on the glass storm door and a knife on the front porch. Upon entering the residence, the police found Twila's dead body on the living room floor.... An ax handle stained with blood and hair was leaning against the couch near her body and a black plastic trash bag containing a knife and a towel with wet brownish stains on it was laying between the couch and the coffee table.
"[One officer] proceeded to the bedroom where [Busby's two sons] usually slept in bunk beds. [The officer] found [one] dead body laying face down on the upper bunk, covered by a blood spotted blanket.... A door leading out of the bedroom and into a utility room yielded further evidence. [He] noticed a bloody handprint located about 24 inches off the floor on the frame of this door. He also noted a bloody handprint on the door knob of the door leading from the kitchen to the utility room and a handprint on the knob of the door exiting from the utility room into the backyard.
"[When] police arrested [Skinner] ... [t]hey found him standing in a closet wearing blood-stained socks and blood-stained blue jeans." Id., at 536.

Investigators also retained vaginal swabs taken from Busby.

In preparation for trial, "the State tested the blood on [Skinner's] clothing, blood and hair from a blanket that partially covered one of the victims, and hairs on one of the victim's back and cheeks." Skinner v. State, 122 S.W.3d 808, 810 (Tex.Crim.App.2003). The State also tested fingerprint evidence. Some of this evidence—including bloody palm prints in the room where one victim was killed—implicated Skinner, but "fingerprints on a bag containing one of the knives" did not. Ibid. Items left untested included the knives found on the premises, the axe handle, vaginal swabs, fingernail clippings, and additional hair samples. See ibid.2

In the decade following his conviction, Skinner unsuccessfully sought state and federal postconviction relief. See Skinner v. Quarterman, 576 F.3d 214 (C.A.5 2009), cert. denied, 559 U.S. 975, 130 S.Ct. 1689, 176 L.Ed.2d 187 (2010). He also pursued informal efforts to gain access to untested biological evidence the police had collected at the scene of the crime.3

In 2001, more than six years after Skinner's conviction, Texas enacted Article 64, a statute allowing prisoners to gain postconviction DNA testing in limited circumstances. Tex.Code Crim. Proc. Ann., Art. 64.01(a) (Vernon Supp.2010). To obtain DNA testing under Article 64, a prisoner must meet one of two threshold criteria. He 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).

Invoking Article 64, Skinner twice moved in state court, first in 2001 and again in 2007, for DNA testing of yet untested biological evidence. See supra, at 1295, n. 3. Both motions were denied. Affirming the denial of Skinner's first motion, the CCA held that he had failed to demonstrate a "reasonable probability ... that he would not have been ... convicted if the DNA test results were exculpatory." Skinner v. State, 122 S.W.3d, at 813.

Skinner's second motion was bolstered by discovery he had obtained in the interim.4 The CCA again affirmed the denial of relief under Article 64, this time on the ground that Skinner failed to meet the "no fault" requirement. See Skinner v. State, 293 S.W.3d 196, 200 (2009).5 During postconviction proceedings, the CCA noted, trial counsel testified that he had not "ask[ed] for testing because he was afraid the DNA would turn out to be [Skinner's]." Id., at 202. That decision, the CCA concluded, constituted "a reasonable trial strategy" that the court had no cause to second-guess. Id ., at 209.

Skinner next filed the instant federal action for injunctive relief under § 1983, naming as defendant respondent Lynn Switzer, the District Attorney whose office prosecuted Skinner and has custody of the evidence Skinner would like to have DNA tested. Skinner's federal-court complaint alleged that Texas violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by refusing to provide for the DNA testing he requested. Complaint ¶ 33, App. 20–21. The Magistrate Judge recommended dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. App. 24–41. Under the governing Circuit precedent, Kutzner v. Montgomery County, 303 F.3d 339, the Magistrate Judge observed, postconviction requests for DNA evidence are cognizable only in habeas corpus, not under § 1983. App. 39. Adopting the Magistrate Judge's recommendation, the District Court dismissed Skinner's suit. Id., at 44–45.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, 363 Fed.Appx. 302 (2010)(per curiam), reiterating that "an action by a prisoner for post-conviction DNA testing is not cognizable under § 1983 and must instead be brought as a petition for writ of habeas corpus," id., at 303. On Skinner's petition,6 we granted certiorari, 560 U.S. 924, 130 S.Ct. 3323, 176 L.Ed.2d 1219 (2010), and now reverse the Fifth Circuit's judgment.


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, see Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 94 S.Ct....

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