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Neal v. Prater

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

November 15, 2019

DAVID PRATER, as district attorney for the Seventh Judicial District of Oklahoma, and in his individual capacity, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Elbryan Deambre Neal filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against David Prater, the district attorney for Oklahoma County. See Am. Compl., Doc. No. 11. Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss [Doc. No. 16] based in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) which now is at issue. See Resp., Doc. No. 19; Reply, Doc. No. 20. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636, United States Magistrate Judge Bernard M. Jones issued a Report and Recommendation [Doc. No. 21], in which he recommended that (i) Plaintiff's claims be dismissed in part pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine[1] and (ii) the Court determine it lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiff's remaining challenges to state law upon screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. See R&R, Doc. No. 21. Plaintiff thereafter filed an Objection [Doc. No. 22] to the R&R. The Court reviews de novo those portions of the R&R to which Plaintiff made specific objections. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         Plaintiff is an inmate who was convicted of a number of crimes in state court. During the crime for which he was convicted, the perpetrator required the victim to transport him in her vehicle. He spoke on a cellular telephone while in the car. Later, a cellular telephone not belonging to the victim (referred to by Plaintiff as “the Samsung cell phone”) was located in the vehicle. According to Plaintiff, “[p]rior to trial[, ] the phone could have been swabbed for DNA analysis and compared to [a DNA] sample obtained from the passenger door of the victim's vehicle” that did not match Plaintiff's DNA, but the phone recovered from the victim's vehicle was not swabbed (and therefore any DNA present on the phone was not tested or compared). Am. Compl. 4, Doc. No. 11. Plaintiff offered an alibi defense at trial that the jury rejected. He now asserts that “[t]esting biological evidence [from the cellular telephone] would corroborate Plaintiff's alibi defense and establish [the] truthfulness of the Plaintiff.” Id. at 5. Plaintiff's eventual goal (but not his goal in the current lawsuit, in which he seeks only the Samsung phone to allow DNA testing) is for his conviction to be overturned. See Resp. 5, Doc. No. 19.

         After his convictions were affirmed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, Plaintiff sought DNA testing of three items in state court: “(1) DNA evidence collected from the Samsung cell phone; (2) the Samsung cell phone itself; and (3) a swab taken from a seat lever in the victim's car.” Order, Neal v. Oklahoma, No. CF-2013-1319 (Okla. Cty. Oct. 31, 2018), Doc. No. 1-1.[2] The state trial court determined that the first and third items did not exist, so they could not be tested. See Id. Plaintiff did not challenge the non-existence of pre-collected DNA evidence on appeal; nor does he challenge it in this case. The state trial court denied his request for new collection of DNA evidence from the cellular phone via application of Okla. Stat. 22, §§ 1373.2 and 1373.4, and that decision was affirmed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. Specifically, the state trial court and the state appellate court found that Plaintiff did not satisfy requirements for postconviction DNA testing found in § 1373.4(A)(1) and (A)(5). That statute, part of Oklahoma's postconviction DNA testing laws, states in relevant part:

         A court shall order DNA testing only if the court finds:

1. A reasonable probability that the petitioner would not have been convicted if favorable results had been obtained through DNA testing at the time of the original prosecution;
2. The request for DNA testing is made to demonstrate the innocence of the convicted person and is not made to unreasonably delay the execution of the sentence or the administration of justice;
3. One or more of the items of evidence the convicted person seeks to have tested still exists;
4. The evidence to be tested was secured in relation to the challenged conviction and either was not previously subject to DNA testing or, if previously tested for DNA, the evidence can be subjected to additional DNA testing that will provide a reasonable likelihood of more probative results; and
5. The chain of custody of the evidence to be tested is sufficient to establish that the evidence has not been substituted, tampered with, replaced or altered in any material respect or, if the chain of custody does not establish the integrity of the evidence, the testing itself has the potential to establish the integrity of the evidence. For purposes of this act, evidence that has been in the custody of law enforcement, other government officials or a public or private hospital shall be presumed to satisfy the chain-of-custody requirement of this subsection absent specific evidence of material tampering, replacement or alteration.

Okla. Stat. tit. 22, § 1373.4(A).

         Plaintiff then filed the instant lawsuit in this Court, in which he purports to “attack[] the constitutionality of Oklahoma's post-conviction DNA testing statutes and the adequacy of access to biological material” and “requests access to the Samsung cell phone” to allow him to perform his own DNA testing on any biological material that can be newly collected from it. Am. Compl. 7, 14, Doc. No. 11.

         The state trial court, as affirmed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, determined that Plaintiff did not meet the requirements of § 1373.4(A) for statute-based DNA testing. To the extent that Plaintiff's current action asks this Court to find that Plaintiff does, in fact, meet the statute's requirements, his action is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.[3] See Pickens v. Kunzweiler, No. 15-CV-504-JHP-PJC, 2016 WL 1651821, at *3-4 (N.D. Okla. Apr. 25, 2016). Put simply, the state court denied Plaintiff's request for access to certain evidence for testing based on § 1373.4(A), and Plaintiff now asks this Court to require that he have access pursuant to § 1373.4(A) to the same evidence for the same testing he was denied in state court. This request falls within the Rooker-Feldman doctrine's scope of “cases brought by state-court losers inviting district court review and rejection of the state court's judgments.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 532 (2011) (quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Erlandson v. Northglenn Mun. Ct., 528 F.3d 785, 789 (10th Cir. 2008) (“[A] complaint filed in a federal district court that seeks review and reversal of a state-court judgment is properly dismissed under Rooker-Feldman.”).

         Plaintiff relies on Skinner to argue otherwise. The Court recognizes that Skinner found the Rooker-Feldman doctrine inapplicable in a postconviction DNA testing case brought via § 1983 action. But it involves, in part, different circumstances than are present here. In Skinner, the plaintiff was “not challeng[ing] the adverse [Texas Court of Criminal Appeals] decisions themselves, ” but instead “the Texas [postconviction DNA testing] statute they authoritatively construed, ” which he alleged to be unconstitutional. Skinner, 562 U.S. at 532. In determining whether the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies, “a state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts, but a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action.” Id. The § 1983 challenge in Skinner fell into the latter category. This case is, at least in part, in the former ...

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