Less than one hour before Henry Skinner was to be executed in Texas in March, he learned that the Supreme Court had stayed his death sentence and would be reviewing his case, which concerned his requests for DNA testing. Today, the case will be heard before the highest court.
“Skinner v. Switzer addresses whether convicted persons who claim that post-conviction DNA tests will show their innocence and invalidate their conviction, but who have been denied post-conviction DNA testing because they fail to satisfy the applicable state statute, can bring a claim in federal district court under §1983 disputing the denial of testing. Federal review of final state court rulings is typically only available through petition for writ of certiorari,” Gregory S. Coleman of Yetter Coleman, counsel of record for the respondent, told Super Lawyers.
Coleman, who represents DA Lynn Switzer in the case, and who was featured in the last issue of Texas Super Lawyers, says that there is a line of cases, including Heck v. Humphrey, in which the Supreme Court held that a post-conviction claim that collaterally attacks a criminal conviction must be brought in habeas corpus, not a civil §1983 claim. “In addressing whether §1983 is an appropriate vehicle for these kinds of DNA testing claims, the court will ultimately decide if DNA testing claims receive special exemption from rules governing habeas petitions and whether the states will develop and primarily enforce post-conviction DNA testing regimes, as the Supreme Court suggested in District Attorney’s Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 129 S.Ct. 2308 (2009), or federal district courts will instead take on that role through civil cases brought via §1983,” Coleman says.