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Skinner v. Switzer

March 7, 2011

HENRY W. SKINNER, PETITIONER
v.
LYNN SWITZER, DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR THE 31ST JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF TEXAS



ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT Court Below: 363 Fed. Appx. 302

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2010

Argued October 13, 2010

District Attorney's Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 557 U. S. ___, ___, left unresolved the question whether a convicted state prisoner seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence may assert that claim in a civil rights action under 42 U. S. C. §1983 or may assert the claim in federal court only in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U. S. C. §2254.

A Texas jury convicted petitioner Skinner and sentenced him to death for murdering his girlfriend and her sons. He claimed that a potent alcohol and drug mix rendered him physically unable to commit the brutal murders, and he identified his girlfriend's uncle as the likely perpetrator. In preparation for trial, the State tested some of the physical evidence, but left untested several items, including knives found on the premises, an axe handle, vaginal swabs, fingernail clippings, and certain hair samples. More than six years later, Texas enacted Article 64, which allows prisoners to gain post-conviction DNA testing in limited circumstances. Invoking Article 64, Skinner twice moved in state court for DNA testing of the untested biological evidence. Both motions were denied. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) affirmed the first denial of relief on the ground that Skinner had not shown, as required by Article 64.03(a)(2), that he "would not have been convicted if exculpatory results had been obtained through DNA testing." The CCA affirmed the second denial of relief on the ground that Skinner had not shown, as required by Article 64.01(b)(1)(B), that the evidence was not previously tested "through no fault" on his part.

Skinner next filed the instant federal action for injunctive relief under §1983, naming as defendant respondent Switzer, the District Attorney who has custody of the evidence that Skinner would like to have tested. Skinner alleged that Texas violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by refusing to provide for the DNA testing he requested. The Magistrate Judge recommended dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim, reasoning that post-conviction requests for DNA evidence are cognizable only in habeas corpus, not under §1983. Adopting that recommendation, the District Court dismissed Skinner's suit. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Held: There is federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction over Skinner's complaint, and the claim he presses is cognizable under §1983. Pp. 7--15.

(a) Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) generally requires only a plausible "short and plain" statement of the plaintiff's claim, not an exposition of his legal argument. Skinner stated his due process claim in a paragraph alleging that the State's refusal "to release the biological evidence for testing . . . deprived [him] of his liberty interests in utilizing state procedures to obtain reversal of his conviction and/or to obtain a pardon or reduction of his sentence . . . ." His counsel has clarified that Skinner does not challenge the prosecutor's conduct or the CCA's decisions; instead, he challenges Texas' post-conviction DNA statute "as construed" by the Texas courts. Pp. 7--8.

(b) The Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar Skinner's suit. This Court has applied the doctrine only in the two cases from which it takes its name, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U. S. 413, District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U. S. 462. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U. S. 280. Given "the narrow ground" the doctrine occupies, id., at 284, the Court has confined Rooker-Feldman "to cases . . . brought by state-court losers . . . inviting district court review and rejection of [a state court's] judgments." Ibid. Skinner's complaint encounters no Rooker-Feldman shoal. "If a federal plaintiff 'present[s] [an] independent claim,' " it is not an impediment to the exercise of federal jurisdiction that the "same or a related question" was earlier aired between the parties in state court. Id., at 292--293. A state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts, but a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action. See, e.g., Feldman, 460 U. S., at 487. Because Skinner's federal case-which challenges not the adverse state-court decisions but the Texas statute they authoritatively construed-falls within the latter category, there was no lack of subject-matter jurisdiction over his federal suit. Pp. 8--10.

(c) Measured against this Court's prior holdings, Skinner has properly invoked §1983. This Court has several times considered when a state prisoner, complaining of unconstitutional state action, may pursue a civil rights claim under §1983, and when habeas corpus is the prisoner's sole remedy. The pathmarking decision, Heck v. Humphrey, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Ginsburg

562 U. S. ____ (2011)

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. ___, ___ (2009) (slip op., at 12--13): 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 (CA2 2007) (claim seeking DNA testing is cognizable under §1983); Savory v. Lyons, 469 F. 3d 667, 669 (CA7 2006) (same); Bradley v. Pryor, 305 F. 3d 1287, 1290--1291 (CA11 2002) (same), with Harvey v. Horan, 278 F. 3d 370, 375 (CA4 2002) (claim is not cognizable under §1983) and Kutzner v. Montgomery County, 303 F. 3d 339, 341 (CA5 2002) (per curiam) (same).

In Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U. S. 74 (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. 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 post-conviction 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. 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 ___ (slip op., at 19), and left slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process, see id., at ___ (slip op., at 18).

I.

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.*fn1 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 ...


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