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    The Lawletter Blog

    CRIMINAL LAW AND CIVIL RIGHTS: Due Process—Posttrial Right to Access Evidence for DNA Testing in Civil Rights Action

    Posted by Gale Burns on Thu, May 12, 2011 @ 13:05 PM

    The Lawletter Vol 35 No 7, May 6, 2011

    Doug Plank, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group 

    In a case previewed in our Criminal Law Update of March 7, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court has resolved a split in the Circuit Courts of Appeals and has decided for the first time that a defendant convicted of murder may bring a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to compel a State to conduct DNA testing of evidence relating to the murder.  Skinner v. Switzer, 131 S. Ct. 1289 (2011).  Writing for the six-member majority of the Court, Justice Ginsburg acknowledged that the Court had previously established in Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74 (2005), that a prisoner could not bring a civil rights suit under § 1983 if a favorable result in the suit would necessarily bring about the release of the prisoner from his or her confinement.  In such cases, the Court had found, the habeas corpus remedies of 28 U.S.C. § 2254 were the exclusive option for a confined prisoner.  However, Justice Ginsburg and the other members of the majority determined in Skinner that because the ultimate results of the DNA testing could not be known for a certainty at the time of the resolution of a suit to compel DNA testing, it could not be said that a favorable outcome in the suit would in fact necessarily result in proof of innocence, as the tests might actually further incriminate the prisoner.  Because of that, the Court found no basis for applying Wilkinson and instead opted to permit the use of § 1983 for compelling DNA testing.  The Court brushed aside claims that its ruling would flood the courts with new civil rights claims, finding no basis to support such claims and noting that Congress had enacted several measures under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 to place constraints on "sportive filings" in federal court.  The Court did not address anything relating to the merits of the suit but instead remanded the case to the district court for determination of the merits.

    Topics: legal research, Doug Plank, criminal law, DNA testing, The Lawletter Vol 35 No 7, due process, evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Skinner v. Switzer, civil rights action

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