On Tuesday the justices will hear oral argument in the case of Texas death-row inmate Rodney Reed, who is seeking DNA testing for evidence that he believes will clear him. The question before the court is a procedural one, focusing on the deadline for Reed to file a federal civil rights claim challenging the constitutionality of the Texas law governing DNA testing. But although the issue in Reed’s case is a technical one, it is nonetheless important not only for Reed but for other inmates who may seek DNA testing in Texas and elsewhere.
In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne that if an inmate has the right under state law to prove his innocence with new DNA evidence, those procedures for DNA testing must be fundamentally fair.
Two years later, in Skinner v. Switzer, the justices agreed that an inmate can pursue a federal civil rights claim to obtain DNA testing of crime-scene evidence. An inmate whose efforts to obtain DNA testing under state law have been unsuccessful, the court ruled, must show that state law denies him his right to due process.
The question that the justices will consider in Reed’s case is when the statute of limitations to pursue a federal civil rights claim begins to run. Is it when the state trial court rejects the inmate’s request for DNA testing, as Texas argues, which would mean that Reed’s federal lawsuit was filed too late? Or is it when, as Reed argues, all of the state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals, have run their course?
Reed, who is Black, was sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites, who was white. Reed has consistently maintained that he is innocent. He says that he was in a longstanding but secret relationship with Stites, which would explain why his DNA was found on her body. Reed suggests that someone else, such as her fiancé, a white police officer who had learned about her relationship with Reed, was in fact responsible for her murder.
After his efforts to obtain federal post-conviction relief were unsuccessful and the state asked to set an execution date, Reed tried to have DNA testing conducted on several items that were discovered on or near Stites’ body and in the truck she often drove. A state trial court turned down his request in November 2014, and it did so again in September 2016, after making additional factual findings.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, upheld the trial court’s decision in April 2017, and in October 2017 it declined to reconsider that ruling.
In August 2019, Reed filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Bryan Goertz, the local district attorney, arguing that the Texas law governing post-conviction DNA testing violates his right to due process by requiring him to comply with unconstitutional procedures before he can use the testing. For example, he contended, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has required inmates to show that the evidence was not contaminated – a condition, Reed says, that is impossible for many inmates to meet because law-enforcement officials often stored multiple pieces of evidence in the same box.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Reed had brought his civil rights lawsuit too late, because he should have filed it within two years – a statute of limitations borrowed from Texas law for the civil rights claim – of the trial court’s November 2014 denial of his request for DNA testing. Reed came to the Supreme Court last fall, asking the justices to review that ruling.
Reed urges the justices to adopt the rule used in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which provides that the statute of limitations only begins to run when all state-court litigation denying the request for DNA testing, including any appeals, has finished. He contends that the basis for his claim – the TCCA’s “authoritative construction” of the DNA-testing law – didn’t exist until then. And waiting until all appeals have concluded would be, he writes, more consistent with the desire to avoid parallel litigation, which both would be a waste of the courts’ time and infringe on the state’s interest in resolving the dispute itself.
The state counters that the trial court’s September 2016 order rejecting Reed’s request for DNA test was a final order and an authoritative construction. But even if Reed were correct that his claim did not exist until the TCCA had ruled, the state adds, the TCCA order that mattered was the April 2017 decision in which the TCCA upheld the trial court’s order. That decision served as binding authority under Texas law, the state stresses, not the TCCA’s one-sentence order in October 2017 denying rehearing. And putting aside the timeliness issues, the state continues, the federal courts have no authority to hear Reed’s case: Reed cannot sue Goertz because he does not enforce the DNA-testing law and cannot order DNA testing on his own.
A “friend of the court” brief from a police-accountability group urges the justices adopt the less stringent statute of limitations, stressing that post-conviction claims for DNA testing like Reed’s are “often the only remedy available to people convicted as a result of police mistakes.” Giving inmates access to such testing, the group concludes, provides “an opportunity to expose policing errors, prove their innocence, and hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct.”
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.