SCOTUS on DNA Testing and A Post-Conviction Appeal by Tony Yarbough


On Monday, the Supreme Court released its 6-3 decision in Skinner v. Switzer. Skinner was convicted of capital murder in Texas, and sought to compel DNA testing to prove his innocence. Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 64 bars defendants who did not request testing at trial from doing so post-conviction. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the defendant may seek access to the testing in federal court under 42 USC 1983, or whether that remedy was only available through a writ of habeas corpus under 28 USC 2254.

The Court held that federal courts have jurisdiction to hear the defendant’s complaint in a Section 1983 civil rights action. Defendant neither was seeking “speedier” release from custody in the action, nor was he challenging a Texas court’s ruling on merits. He was only challenging their interpretation of the law. This ruling allows the federal court subject matter jurisdiction over the defendants’ claim–it does not reach the merits. Defense attorneys are pleased with this ruling because it “slays the procedural dragons” that inhibit petitioners’ efforts toward exoneration in federal court.

While we’re talking about postconviction efforts, I’d like to mention an interesting pro bono case that a fabulous Justia client is working on. New York attorney Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma is working to free Antonio Yarbough, who he believes was wrongfully convicted of a triple homicide in 1992. Tony was convicted of brutally murdering his mother, sister, and her friend in their apartment when he was only 18 years old. Tony’s mother was a known drug addict and other drug users were coming in and out of her apartment at all times. A witness testified that one of these drug users threatened her with a knife. There was no physical evidence linking Yarbough to the crime.

Antonio himself discovered the grisly scene and reported it immediately to the police. When he went with them to give a statement, however, they used lengthy, aggressive and manipulative interrogations to extract a false confession from him. His friend Sharriff Wilson, who was only 15 at the time, was also interrogated and “confessed.” He has since recanted this confession, but Tony is still in jail. To get Tony out, his pro bono attorney needs to conduct extensive investigation and forensic testing. Mr. Margulis-Ohnuma can do the legal work pro bono, but he needs to pay for investigative and scientific expertise.

He is collecting funds on his site–this is an excellent chance to help free a wrongfully convicted person, and to right a terrible injustice. The funds will go directly to help the client. The filings and other information are available to view on the site. Please consider donating if you can!

Finally, following up on a post I did in January, I’m happy to let you know that Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois has signed a bill to repeal the death penalty in that state. He will commute the existing death sentences (15) to life without parole. In support of this decision, he stated:

“Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”

Thank you, Governor Quinn, for your thoughtful consideration of this very difficult issue, and your bravery and conviction for, in your own words, doing  “the right, just thing to abolish the death penalty.”