What's at Stake
When a prisoner pursues state post-conviction DNA testing through the state-provided litigation process, when does the statute of limitations for a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 procedural due process claim begin to run?
This is a case about preserving federal court access for federal constitutional claims. Rodney Reed was sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites. Reed claims that he was in a secret romantic relationship with Stites and maintains his innocence in her assault and death. In his defense, Reed has suggested that Stites’ fiancé, a white police officer, was responsible for her murder after discovering Sites’ relationship with Reed, a Black man.
Reed sought DNA testing on several items found on or near Stites’ body and her truck. However, his attempts to obtain testing through state courts were unsuccessful. Reed then turned to the Texas federal courts, arguing that Texas’ post-conviction DNA testing law violates his right to due process by requiring him to comply with unconstitutional procedures before he can use DNA testing to prove his innocence.
The U.S. Court of Appeal for the 5th Circuit denied Reed’s appeal and ruled that Reed should have pursued his claims within 2 years of the lower court’s denial of his DNA testing request, rather than within 2 years of the final denial of his claim by the state courts on appeal. Reed appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, maintaining that the 2-year statute of limitations should not begin to run until his state claim was finally denied through the full state appellate process.
The ACLU, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the ACLU Foundation of Texas, the Cato Institute, and the Rutherford Institute filed an amicus brief in support of Reed at the Supreme Court. The ACLU argues that, if the state courts deny an individual’s state law claim for post-conviction DNA testing, he or she may bring a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim that the state’s law violates his right to due process as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The ACLU argued that the 5th Circuit’s approach would require plaintiffs to file their § 1983 claims parallel to their state appeals, even though those appeals are likely to moot or alter the federal constitutional claim. And by requiring litigants to file so early, the Fifth Circuit’s rule would cause litigants seeking to vindicate their constitutional rights to find that the federal courthouse doors closed long before they even reasonably expected them to open.
On April 19, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Reed, holding that Reed timely filed his challenge to Texas’ post-conviction DNA testing statute. The Court reversed the judgment of the 5th Circuit and remanded Reed’s 42 U.S.C. §1983 action for further proceedings on the merits.