Reed v. Goertz (U.S. Supreme Court, April 2023)

The Federal Docket

August 17, 2023

In 1996, Texas sentenced Rodney Reed to death for the murder by strangulation of Stacey Stites. At trial, Reed claimed he was innocent and that someone else had committed the murder. After Reed’s conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal and on collateral review, Reed filed a motion under Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law. He asked Texas to conduct DNA testing on, among other things, the murder weapon—the belt that had been used to strangle Stites.

The state trial court denied Reed’s motion for DNA testing, in part because the belt had an insufficient chain of custody. Reed then appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”), who affirmed the trial court and denied Reed’s request for a rehearing.

Now, Reed has filed a § 1983 suit in federal court. He argues that Texas’s DNA testing law failed to afford him procedural due process by effectively foreclosing relief to anyone, like Reed, who was convicted before Texas enacted statewide rules governing the proper handling and storage of evidence.

The district court dismissed Reed’s § 1983 suit—and that dismissal was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit—because more than 2 years had passed since the Texas trial court denied Reed’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The Supreme Court granted cert. to address when the statute of limitations (“SOL”) begins to run for a § 1983 suit that claims the denial of procedural due process.

The majority’s answer is a straightforward one: the SOL on such a claim begins to run when there is no longer any process afforded—i.e., “when the state litigation ended.” In Reed’s case, that was when the Texas CCA denied Reed’s request for a rehearing after it had affirmed the state court’s denial of his motion for DNA testing, thus exhausting all his procedural remedies under Texas law.

Opinion by Kavanaugh, joined by Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Barrett, Jackson
Certiorari to the Fifth Circuit
Dissenting opinion filed by Thomas, arguing that Reed’s complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
Separate dissenting opinion filed by Alito, joined by Gorsuch. They would have held that “a complete and present cause of action” had accrued—and thus the SOL began to run on Reed—once the CCA affirmed the denial of his requested relief (although the opinion suggests it very well may have been sooner: that the harm occurred as soon as the prosecutor refused to conduct the testing).

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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