Alexa Johnson-Gomez, MJLST Staffer
When individuals convicted of murder claim actual innocence, crime-scene DNA testing has, many times over, been dispositive in proving such innocence. Intuitively, we assume that if someone has been wrongfully convicted, DNA will be the bringer of truth. But what happens when a defendant cannot get their requested DNA testing because the State argues their claim is procedurally defaulted or barred by the statute of limitations?
Reed v. Goertz is a case in the current U.S. Supreme Court term. Petitioner Rodney Reed argues that his due process rights were violated by a refusal to complete DNA testing after he filed post conviction petitions for relief. While the facts are fairly case-specific and relate to Texas criminal procedure, the Court’s holding in this case could have important implications for when the clock starts to run on petitions for crime-scene DNA testing, as well as for death-row claims of actual innocence more generally.
Back in 1998, a Texas court convicted Rodney Reed of the murder of Stacey Stites; the evidentiary basis for this conviction was solely the presence of his sperm. Reed has maintained his innocence since trial, explaining that his sperm was present because he was having a secret, long-standing affair with Stites. At trial, Reed theorized that the murderer might have been the man Stites was engaged to, who was perhaps retaliating against Stites, a white woman, for having an affair with Reed, a Black man.
In 2014, Reed sought post conviction DNA testing under Chapter 64 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. This provision allows a convicted person to obtain post conviction DNA testing of biological material if the court finds that certain conditions are met. The state trial court denied this motion in November 2014, on the grounds that Reed failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he would not have been convicted but for exculpatory results. Reed appealed the denial, and the appellate court remanded for additional fact finding. Then in September 2016, after additional fact finding was done, the state trial court denied the post conviction DNA testing yet again. The appellate court affirmed the denial in April 2017 and denied rehearing in October 2017.
At this stage, Reed filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint against the prosecuting attorney, challenging the constitutionality of Chapter 64 both on its face and as applied to his case. The district court dismissed all of Reed’s claims for failure to state a claim; the Fifth Circuit affirmed in April 2021, stating that Reed’s claim was untimely and that Reed knew or should have known of his injury in November 2014. Generally, time bars in post conviction follow a common principle: if a defendant did know or should have known of a claim, that is the point at which the clock starts running. Defense counsel argues that the clock began to run in October 2017, after Reed exhausted his post conviction appeals fully.
At oral argument on October 11, 2022, the state argued that the clock started prior to the rehearing date in October 2017. Justice Kagan reasoned that it would be simpler to acknowledge we do not know what the authoritative construction of a court of appeals is until appeals are concluded. Justice Jackson agreed, noting that if the federal clock starts while the state appeals process is still ongoing, then the federal courts would have to pause consideration to allow state courts to weigh in first. This would be untenable and overly chaotic. Defense counsel reminded the court of the mounting evidence that points at Reed’s innocence, evidence which is still under review.
While not the hottest topic of this Supreme Court term, this case could still have important implications. While the use of DNA testing to prove actual innocence has been a practice in the world of litigation for the past few decades, cases that have yet to get their post conviction DNA testing done, like Reed’s, often stand in such perilous status because of procedural bars.
A haunting example—the recent execution of Murray Hooper in Arizona. 76 years old at the time of his death, Hooper maintained his innocence until his day of execution. There was never any forensic testing in Hooper’s case that proved he conclusively committed the murders. Hooper’s lawyers filed appeals to get newly discovered evidence considered and forensic testing completed, yet these petitions were all denied.
In theory, post conviction and habeas relief are meant to be reserved for the most deserving of defendants. The courts do not want to allow convicted murderers chance after chance at getting a conviction or sentence overturned, and there is, of course, the presumption that any conviction was right the first time. Yet the high procedural barrier to bringing such claims is not in line with the reality of wrongful convictions. Since 1973, 190 death-row inmates have been exonerated.Post conviction DNA testing is not merely allowing defendants to draw out their appeals process and stave off execution, but is an important scientific tool that can check if the trial court got it right. Preventing petitioners from accessing DNA testing just because of procedural barriers is an injustice, and hopefully the Supreme Court rules as such in Reed v. Goertz.
 Innocence Staff, 10 Facts About Rodney Reed’s Case You Need to Know, Innocence Project (Oct. 11, 2019), https://innocenceproject.org/10-facts-you-need-to-know-about-rodney-reed-who-is-scheduled-for-execution-on-november-20/.
 Amy Howe, Justices Wrestle with Statute of Limitations in Rodney Reed’s Effort to Revive DNA Lawsuit, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 11, 2022), https://www.scotusblog.com/2022/10/justices-wrestle-with-statute-of-limitations-in-rodney-reeds-effort-to-revive-dna-lawsuit/.
 See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. § 64.03.
 Reed v. Goertz, 995 F.3d 425, 428 (5th Cir. 2021).
 Liliana Segura, Out of Time, The Intercept (Nov. 15, 2022), https://theintercept.com/2022/11/15/murray-hooper-arizona-execution/.
 Associated Press, Lawyers for Murray Hooper File New Appeal as Execution Date Nears, Fox 10 (Nov. 1, 2022),https://www.fox10phoenix.com/news/lawyers-for-murray-hooper-file-new-appeal-as-execution-date-nears.
 Innocence, Death Penalty Information Center, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/innocence (last visited Nov. 27, 2022).