Friday, April 1, 2011

Discovering the Imprisoned Innocent: The Effects of Skinner and Connick on the Use of Section 1983 to Gain Access to Exculpatory Evidence

By Ralph Mayrell

The imprisoned innocent received mixed messages from the Supreme Court this month in decisions concerning his access to exculpatory evidence.  While offering prisoners a new avenue to access DNA evidence, the Court limited the ability of the wrongly convicted to sue the district attorney.  Providing an alternative to habeas corpus, the Court in Skinner held that a prisoner could state a claim for DNA testing that might prove his innocence under Section 1983.  However, the Court in Connick held that an innocent former prisoner could not sue a district attorney’s office for damages under Section 1983 on the basis of a single failure to reveal exculpatory evidence.

The Court in Skinner held that a prisoner could state a claim under Section 1983 requesting access to DNA evidence.  Skinner is a Texas prisoner convicted of multiple murders and sentenced to death.  He has maintained his innocence and tried to use Texas’s Article 64 to gain access to potentially exculpatory DNA evidence.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied his Article 64 request twice, holding first that he failed to demonstrate the evidence would have led to his acquittal, and later holding that he had some responsibility for the failure of the evidence to appear in his trial.

In response, Skinner filed a Section 1983 claim in a Texas federal district court against the district attorney who held the evidence, arguing that Article 64 as construed by the Court of Criminal Appeals harmed his access to due process.  Prior law suggested that a defendant could not use Section 1983 to gain immediate release from prison or imply that a conviction was incorrect.  The Court held that this prior law did not preclude the use of Section 1983 to gain access to evidence that may or may not exculpate a convicted defendant.  It rejected the argument that habeas corpus is the exclusive means for a prisoner to access exculpatory DNA evidence.

In contrast to Skinner, the Court in Connick limited the options available to acquitted ex-prisoners to gain relief under Section 1983 when they discover that a district attorney failed to reveal exculpatory evidence.  The defendant had been convicted of an attempted armed robbery and later had not testified in his own defense at a murder trial as a result of his prior conviction.  After years of unsuccessful appeals, his private investigator discovered that the district attorney was aware of evidence proving that he had not attempted the robbery.  As a result, the Louisiana Court of Appeals reversed his armed robbery and murder convictions and sent him to retrial for the murder conviction, where he testified and was acquitted. 

In light of the failure of the district attorney to reveal exculpatory evidence—a Brady violation—Thompson filed a Section 1983 damages claim against the district attorney’s office.  The Court held against Thompson because the office was liable only for a failure to train its attorneys as evinced by repeated Brady violations, and Thompson had not displayed multiple violations.  A similar argument was also made in respect to his claims against Connick, the district attorney.  The absence of a showing of repeated Brady violations indicated to the Court that the plaintiff had not shown a deliberate failure to train.

These decisions leave the imprisoned innocent with more tools to gain access to exculpatory evidence, such as crime scene DNA evidence, but limit their ability to punish prosecutors who fail to obey their constitutional duty to reveal exculpatory evidence.  These opinions together effectively increase the burden upon the imprisoned innocent to engage in self-help with respect to proving their innocence, while decreasing the enforceable duty of prosecutors to ensure they do not prosecute the innocent.  Such a shift, even combined with the broader reading of Section 1983 made available under Skinner, places poorer, less educated, and more vulnerable populations at even greater risk of remaining among the imprisoned innocent. 

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