The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] 6-3 in Skinner v. Switzer [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a convicted prisoner seeking access to biological evidence for DNA testing may assert a civil rights claim under Section 1983 [text]. Texas death row inmate Henry Skinner filed a § 1983 claim seeking access to DNA evidence that he believes will prove his innocence. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed [opinion, PDF] a district court decision to dismiss Skinner's claim, stating that relief could only be sought through habeas corpus. Reversing the Fifth Circuit, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority:
[W]e 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."Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito.
Skinner was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for the murders of his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons. He claims that, while he was in the house at the time the murders occurred, he was incapacitated by large quantities of alcohol and codeine. He has identified Busby's uncle as the possible murderer and believes that DNA evidence will exonerate him.