Director, Center for Supreme Court AdvocacyNational Association of Attorneys General
This Report summarizes opinions issued on April 28 and May 2, 2022 (Part I); and cases granted review on April 25 and May 2, 2022 (Part II).
Case Granted Review: Reed v. Goertz, 21-442
Reed v. Goertz, 21-442. In Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521 (2011), the Court held that a prisoner may bring a §1983 claim to show that state post-conviction DNA testing procedures violate due process. In this case, the Court will resolve whether the statute of limitations for such claims begins to run when the trial court denies testing or when an appellate court affirms that denial. Stacey Stites was found dead alongside a road in Texas; police matched the DNA from sperm found in her vagina to Rodney Reed. Reed was charged with capital murder, and he defended himself on the theory that someone else (perhaps Stites’s fiancé) committed the murder, and that Reed and Stites had a secret longstanding sexual relationship. The jury rejected these defenses and convicted Reed. After numerous state and federal post-conviction proceedings, Reed moved in state court for DNA testing of certain evidence collected during the investigation. In 2014, the trial court denied the request because Reed had not met certain conditions required by the state DNA testing law. Following a remand for additional factfinding, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed that decision in April 2017, and then denied rehearing in October 2017. In June 2018, the United States Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari.
In August 2019, Reed filed a §1983 claim against District Attorney Bryan Goertz challenging the constitutionality of the Texas DNA testing law on its face and as applied. The district court granted Goertz’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The Fifth Circuit affirmed on the alternative ground that Reed’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations. 995 F.3d 425. Section 1983 claims are subject to a state’s personal injury statute of limitations, which in Texas is two years. As such, Reed could not assert any claim that accrued before August 2017. But the accrual date itself is a question of federal law, and the Fifth Circuit had not previously considered when an injury accrues based on the denial of a request for post-conviction DNA testing. The court reasoned that a limitations period generally begins to run when a plaintiff knows or should know that he has been injured. The court concluded that Reed became aware, or should have become aware, that his right to DNA testing was allegedly violated when the trial court denied his motion in 2014. Relying on Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997), and Savory v. Lyons, 469 F.3d 667 (7th Cir. 2006), the court observed that Reed did not need to wait for an appeal, because §1983 has no exhaustion requirement, and such claims should go forward “immediately.”
Reed argues in his petition that he has amassed what Justice Sotomayor previously described as “a substantial body of evidence that, if true, casts doubt on the veracity and scientific validity of the evidence on which Reed’s conviction rests.” Reed v. Texas, 140 S. Ct. 686 (2020) (Sotomayor, J., statement respecting the denial of certiorari). Reed maintains that he was wrongfully denied access to DNA testing that might help him prove his innocence. He relies on Van Poyck v. McCollum, 646 F.3d 865 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam), in which the Eleventh Circuit held that the limitations period begins to run with a final decision of an appellate court. Reed argues that this approach makes sense because a §1983 claim depends on the state courts’ construction of the challenged law, which a prisoner cannot know “definitively” until the appellate courts have weighed in. He insists that the rule adopted by the Fifth Circuit is illogical because any injury from the trial court’s ruling is still “tentative” before an appeal. Reed also argues that exhaustion principles do not apply because in state court the prisoner seeks to utilize the state’s DNA testing procedures, while in federal court he raises a different claim by challenging those same procedures. Finally, Reed asserts that by requiring parallel litigation in state and federal court, the Fifth Circuit’s rule undermines comity, federalism, consistency, and judicial economy.
Goertz responds that the evidence against Reed was strong, he has a documented history of physical and sexual violence, and state and federal courts have repeatedly found that he uses dilatory and abusive litigation tactics. Goertz argues that the Fifth Circuit’s rule is correct because a state appellate court merely affirms the true harm, which is the denial of DNA testing, and a contrary rule would place the statute of limitations in a prisoner’s hands based on his litigation decisions. Goertz questions whether the Eleventh Circuit would reach the same outcome today because its decision was based on a takings case whose reasoning has since been abandoned. Moreover, Reed’s outcome might not change even under the Eleventh Circuit’s rule, because he filed his federal claim more than two years after the Texas appellate court rejected his claim, albeit within two years of the denial of rehearing and the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari.