Thursday, May 27, 2010

SCOTUS Will Hear Another DNA Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear another post-conviction DNA case. In Skinner v. Switzer, No. 09-9000 the Court will decide whether a prisoner can seek DNA testing by means of a civil rights claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983.

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court avoided making that very decision in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, 557 U.S. ___ (2009). Many Court observers thought that Osborne would ultimately test the Heck doctrine. The court ruled in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), a prisoner in state custody may not sue under 1983 to challenge the fact or duration of his confinement. A state offender may only pursue a challenge to his conviction through habeas corpus.

William G. Osborne was convicted in Alaska of kidnapping and sexual assault. He raped, beat and shot in the head a prostitute near the Anchorage Airport. After his conviction, Osborne sought a more definitive means of DNA testing for evidence used to convict him. Prior to trial he sought a method of testing that would only “not eliminate” him as a suspect. He wanted some wiggle room to argue that he was not responsible for the victim’s death.

The Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered Alaska to turn over the evidence requested by Osborne. The matter was appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court never got to the issue of Heck and the right to challenge a conviction through a 1983 claim.

Instead the court focused on Osborne’s contention that pursuant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment he was entitled to retest DNA through a new method at his own expense. The court refused to recognize a free-standing due process right to DNA evidence, separate from a claim seeking vindication. Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote for the majority, “Moreover to suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what has been a prompt and considered legislative response by congress and the states.”

The Supreme Court will now have another chance to review Heck. In 1995, Skinner was convicted of the brutal strangulation and beating death of his girlfriend and the stabbing deaths of her two adult sons. Skinner asserts that he was intoxicated to the point that he could not have possibly carried out the murders. On the evening of the murders he showed up at a former girlfriend’s house in bloody clothing and with a knife wound on his hand.

Skinner's appeals were denied. His habeas corpus, state and federal, petitions were denied. He sought to have evidence retested for DNA purposes. He finally filed a civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983. The District Court dismissed the complaint and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Court will not make a decision until 2011.

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