From the State and Local Legal Center
In Reed v. Goertz the U.S. Supreme Court will decide when the statute of limitations begins to run on a claim seeking post-conviction DNA testing of crime scene evidence. All 50 states and the District of Columbia allow post-conviction DNA testing in some circumstances.
Rodney Reed was convicted of capital murder in 1998. Stacey Stites’ body and some personal items were found in one location; the truck she shared with her fiancé and other personal items were found at another location.
The medical examiner concluded Stites had likely been sexually assaulted prior to being killed. A DNA profile of the sperm found matched with Reed. Reed claims he and Stites were having a consensual affair and that he is innocent.
In 2014, Reed asked the state court to test Stites’ personal items found at both locations pursuant to Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law. In November 2014 the trial court denied the order. Reed’s unsuccessful appeals ended in October 2017.
In Skinner v. Switzer (2011) the Supreme Court held that state prisoners denied post-conviction DNA testing of crime-scene evidence may bring 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuits seeking “to show that the governing state law denies [them] procedural due process.” Section 1983 is a federal statute that allows government officials and entities to be sued for money damages for constitutional violations.
In August 2019, Reed brought a Section 1983 claim challenging the constitutionality of Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law. The 5th Circuit held it was barred by the statute of limitations which began running as soon as the state trial court denied the DNA testing in November 2014.
Texas has a two-year statute of limitations that applies to Section 1983 cases so filing the Section 1983 action in August 2019 was too late.
Per 5th Circuit precedent, the statute of limitations begins to run on Section 1983 cases “the moment the plaintiff becomes aware . . . he has suffered an injury or has sufficient information to know that he has been injured.”
According to the 5th Circuit: “Here, Reed first became aware that his right to access that evidence was allegedly being violated when the trial court denied his . . . .motion [for post-conviction DNA testing] in November 2014. Reed had the necessary information to know that his rights were allegedly being violated as soon as the trial court denied his motion for post-conviction relief.”
In his petition asking the court to hear his case, Reed argues that the statute of limitations to bring challenges to post-conviction DNA statutes shouldn’t begin running until the end of state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals.
According to Reed: “Before the state appellate court interprets the statute, a movant cannot know definitively what the statute means and whether it is adequate to protect his constitutional rights.”