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Skinner v. Switzer, USSC No. 09-9000, cert granted 5/24/10

Question Presented:

May a convicted prisoner seeking access to biological evidence for DNA testing assert that claim in a claim in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or is such a claim cognizable only in a petition for writ of habeas corpus?

Docket: 09-9000

Scotusblog analysis notes, in part:

Skinner is seeking to raise an issue that the Justices had agreed to review last Term in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne (08-6). The Court decided the Osborne case on June 18, but left unresolved that specific issue. The question is whether a state inmate seeking access to and testing of DNA evidence may pursue that claim under civil rights law (Section 1983), rather than in a federal habeas challenge. Skinner’s lawyers contend that he has tried unsuccessfully to use Texas state procedures for DNA testing, so his only remaining chance to get it is through a civil rights claim.

Wisconsin affords a statutory right to postconviction DNA testing under certain conditions, see generally § 974.07; State v. James M. Moran, 2005 WI 115; State v. Kenneth A. Hudson, 2004 WI App 99, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a federally-guaranteed right in place. Nor should it be overlooked that Wisconsin courts have jurisdiction over 1983 claims, Terry v. Kolski, 78 Wis.2d 475, 254 N.W.2d 704 (1977). That is: if the right to postconviction testing is enforceable via 1983, then relief can be sought in a state court without having to go to federal court.

Related developments will no doubt occur at an accelerating rate, but for now take note of these if for no reason other than fortuitous timing:

  • UW’s Keith Findley has just posted Innocence Protection in the Appellate Process (“If protecting against mistaken conviction of the innocent is indeed a primary objective in criminal appeals, it is fair to ask how well the system serves that function. Unfortunately, judging by the recent evidence, especially the empirical evidence from cases in which postconviction DNA testing has proved that an innocent person was wrongly convicted, the appellate process in criminal cases is largely a failure on this most important score.”)
  • Prosecutors seek cases where further DNA testing could confirm or cast doubt on defendants’ guilt (“Milwaukee County prosecutors and national experts will review the roughly 2,100 homicide prosecutions filed in the county since 1992 in an effort to identity cases in which further DNA testing could either confirm or cast doubt upon the defendant’s guilt, District Attorney John Chisholm said Monday.”).
  • House votes to expand national DNA arrest database (“Millions of Americans arrested for but not convicted of crimes will likely have their DNA forcibly extracted and added to a national database, according to a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday.”).

A fundamental law of physics: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The benefits of safeguarding the innocent will incur the costs of intruding on privacy interests, among other things.

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