U.S. Supreme Court Holds Prisoners May File Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit to Obtain DNA Testing


The United States Supreme Court decided on Monday in Skinner v. Switzer that a Texas death row inmate is entitled to sue a prosecutor in a federal civil rights lawsuit for refusing to allow testing of DNA evidence in his case. The decision makes it easier for inmates to sue for access to DNA evidence that could exonerate them.

After he was convicted and sentenced to death, Texas inmate Hank Skinner repeatedly attempted to get access to DNA testing under the state’s DNA law. Texas courts denied testing because Mr. Skinner’s lawyer did not request it earlier.

Mr. Skinner then filed a federal lawsuit against the district attorney whose office prosecuted him and has custody of the DNA evidence. The federal courts denied Mr. Skinner’s suit, concluding that “an action by a prisoner for postconviction DNA testing is not cognizable under § 1983 and must instead be brought as a petition for writ of habeas corpus.” Texas set an execution date for Mr. Skinner, but the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution and reviewed the case.

In a narrow decision written by Justice Ginsburg, the Court noted that a Section 1983 suit is available in cases where the relief sought by the inmate would not “necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.” Reasoning that DNA testing could prove exculpatory, inconclusive, or even incriminating, the Court concluded that “a postconviction claim for DNA testing is properly pursued in a § 1983 action.”

Alabama enacted a law in 2009 that restricts access to DNA testing for people convicted of a capital offense. The Court’s decision now provides a mechanism for prisoners denied DNA testing under laws like those in Alabama and Texas to sue in federal court for access to DNA evidence.