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Case Basics
Docket No. 
Henry W. Skinner
Lynn Switzer, District Attorney for the 31st Judicial District of Texas
Decided By 
(for the petitioner)
(for the respondent)
Facts of the Case 

A Texas state court convicted Henry Skinner of capital murder and sentenced him to death. Subsequently, Mr. Skinner brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against the prosecuting attorney in a Texas federal district court alleging that his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment were violated when the district attorney refused to allow him access to biological evidence for DNA testing. The district court dismissed the case. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court held that circuit precedent established that Mr. Skinner's claim was not cognizable as a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, but instead must be brought as a petition for writ of habeas corpus.


Can a convicted prisoner seeking access to biological evidence for DNA testing assert that claim in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983?

Decision: 6 votes for Skinner, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Section 1983

Yes. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in which the majority found that Skinner had "properly invoked § 1983."

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. Thomas cautioned: "Allowing such challenges under § 1983 would undermine Congress' strict limitations on federal review of state habeas decisions. If cognizable at all, Skinner's claim sounds in habeas corpus."

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SKINNER v. SWITZER. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 25 August 2015. <>.
SKINNER v. SWITZER, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 25, 2015).
"SKINNER v. SWITZER," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 25, 2015,