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Injustice From The Supreme Court, Courtesy Of Justice Thomas And His Fellow Conservatives

In 1985, John Thompson was sentenced to die in Louisiana for a murder he didn’t commit because a prosecutor in New Orleans deliberately withheld evidence that would have exonerated him. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Thompson could not sue the New Orleans District Attorney for actions that kept him, isolated, on Death Row for 14 years:

A bitterly divided Supreme Court on Tuesday tossed out a jury verdict won by a New Orleans man who spent 14 years on death row and came within weeks of execution because prosecutors had hidden a blood test and other evidence that would have proven his innocence.

The 5-4 decision delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas shielded the New Orleans district attorney’s office from being held liable for the mistakes of its prosecutors. The evidence of their misconduct did not prove “deliberate indifference” on the part of then-Dist. Atty. Harry Connick Sr., Thomas said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized her disapproval by reading her dissent in the courtroom, saying the court was shielding a city and its prosecutors from “flagrant” misconduct that nearly cost an innocent man his life.

“John Thompson spent 14 years isolated on death row before the truth came to light,” she said. He was innocent of the crimes that sent him to prison and prosecutors had “dishonored” their obligation to present the true facts to the jury, she said.

In the past, the high court has absolved trial prosecutors from any and all liability for the cases they bring to court. The key issue in the case of Connick vs. John Thompson was whether the district attorney could be held liable for a pattern of wrongdoing in his office and for his failure to see to it that his prosecutors followed the law.

In 1999, when all his appeals had failed on his conviction for the murder of a hotel executive, Thompson was scheduled to be put to death. But a private investigator hired by his lawyer found a blood test in the police lab that showed the man wanted for a related carjacking had type B blood, while Thompson’s was type O.

Thompson had been charged with and convicted of an attempted carjacking near the Superdome as a prelude to charging him with the unsolved murder of a hotel executive.

The newly revealed blood test spared Thompson’s life, and a judge ordered a new trial on the murder charge that had sent him to death row. His new defense lawyers found other evidence that had been hidden, including eyewitnesses reports. Bystanders reported seeing a man who was 6 feet tall with close-cropped hair running away holding a gun. Thompson was 5 feet 8 and had a bushy Afro.

With the new eyewitness reports and other evidence that pointed to another man as the killer, Thompson was quickly acquitted of all the charges in a second trial. He won $14 million in damages in a civil suit against the district attorney.

This is, in a word, outrageous. The duty of a prosecutor to turn over exculpatory evidence has been part of the law since the Supreme Court decided Brady v. Maryland in 1963.  In that, opinion Justice Douglas stated:

Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted but when criminal trials are fair; our system of the administration of justice suffers when any accused is treated unfairly. An inscription on the walls of the Department of Justice states the proposition candidly for the federal domain: “The United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts.” 2 A prosecution that withholds evidence on demand of an accused which, if made available,  would tend to exculpate him or reduce the penalty helps shape a trial that bears heavily on the defendant. That casts the prosecutor in the role of an architect of a proceeding that does not comport with standards of justice, even though, as in the present case, his action is not “the result of guile,” to use the words of the Court of Appeals.

Thompson was denied a fair trial because the prosecutor consciously refused to turn over evidence that could have, and ultimately die, clear him of the crimes he was accused of. Because of that egregious action, he spent fourteen years of his life on Death Row. The idea that he is unable to receive damages for this action from the very office that wrongfully convicted him is really quite shocking. Prosecutors have an ethical duty that goes beyond those of normal attorneys; they are required to see that justices is administered fairly. Sometimes, that means that they’ll lose a case but, as that saying goes, it is better that a hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man go to prison.

Finally, Justice Thomas’s argument that this was just a single incident ignores the fact that four other prosecutors knew of the blood evidence that was withheld and that, when it was headed by then District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr., the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office, it wrongfully convicted 19 men of capital crimes. If that isn’t a pattern of behavior, I don’t know what is. The Supreme Court, and specifically the five conservatives in the majority, should be ashamed of itself on this.

Here’s the opinion:

Connick v. Thompson

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. wr says:

    Why would they be ashamed? They see their job as protecting the powerful against the powerless. They’ve succeeded again.

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  2. PD Shaw says:

    Yes, that’s Hary Connick’s dad, and no, it’s not surprising.

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  3. In the past, the high court has absolved trial prosecutors from any and all liability for the cases they bring to court.

    One can be appalled at the injustice running rampant in New Orleans and still wonder if perhaps a variant of stare decisis isn’t warranted. Opening up every prosecutor to civil actions is a cure that might be worse than the disease. Still, it’s a shame to see them get away without consequence for their actions which clearly worked against the interests of justice.

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  4. Jay Dubbs says:

    What is surprising is how weak the opinion is. I would have expected something stronger on such a divisive matter.

    My favorite Thomas line:

    A licensed attorney making legal judgments, in his capacity as a prosecutor, about Brady material simply does not present the same “highly predictable” constitutional danger as Canton ’s untrained officer

    Except of course, that is exactly what happened in this case, and in 14 other similiar cases in the same office. Either the DA didn’t know that he had to turn this over, or didn’t care. Both are unbelievable and unacceptable, and frankly I don’t know which is worse.

    This ruling creates a giant hole in Brady. Even if a DA is found to have violated Brady, they (or their employer) won’t really face any repercussions other than having the conviction vacated . . . maybe . . . 14 years later . . . if they have a dogged, skilled and dilligent investigator.

    This one is just hard to swallow.

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  5. Neil Hudelson says:

    Good thing those principled conservatives on the court believe in limited government powers.

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  6. PD Shaw says:

    Jay Dubbs, I’m struck by the notion that the D.A.’s office was being sued for failing to train it’s lawyers from concealing evidence in order to frame a defendant for a death penalty offense. Surely such training cannot be necessary or serve any useful purpose. Had the prosecutor went to Thompson’s house and shot him in cold blood, would the D.A.’s office be liable since it didn’t train it’s staff not to murder suspects?

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  7. PD,

    Prosecutors have both an ethical and legal duty to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense. In this case, the prosecutor refused to abide by those duties and someone spent 14 years on death row. As the employer of these prosecutors, Connick is responsible for their actions AND has an ethical duty to ensure they are acting within the bounds of the law. He totally failed in that regard and his office should be responsible.

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  8. TG Chicago says:

    @charles austin:

    Opening up every prosecutor to civil actions is a cure that might be worse than the disease.

    What would be the bad part? All the innocent people getting justice or all the guilty prosecutors getting punished?

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  9. mattb says:

    PD: Ditto what Doug said. There’s no question in this sort of case that there is a *legal* duty to disclose (beyond ethical).

    BTW, this is exactly why I’m so cynical about people who complain about “criminal rights” — few of them have any real engagement with the criminal justice system. I’m not suggesting that all cop or prosecutor’s are corrupt. Rather, it’s the even increasing level of abuse that needs to take place in order to have a ruling overturned (especially since AaEDPA). And even in a cause like this where’s its overturned, the people who committed the violation are rarely punished (in fact, they’ve usually moved up in the world since that time).

    BTW, I wonder how supporters of this decisions felt about the Duke Lacrosse case and the subsequent treatment of that DA.

    One can be appalled at the injustice running rampant in New Orleans and still wonder if perhaps a variant of stare decisis isn’t warranted. Opening up every prosecutor to civil actions is a cure that might be worse than the disease.

    Sadly, this same argument has been also forwarded by lots of people for limiting the scope of what falls under Federal Habeus Corpus appeals. Considering that’s a right granted by the Constitution (like free speech and bearing arms) it’s pretty appalling.

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  10. PD Shaw says:

    Doug, I don’t dispute any of that. I do question whether it makes sense to hold the office liable for not teaching it’s lawyers to do something that they should have known was wrong in law school, their ethics exam, from their parents, or their religious advisor, their conscience . . .

    Perhaps liability shouldn’t be premised on teaching, but that’s not the question the courts seem to be asking.

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  11. hey norm says:

    this is emblamatic of two charachteristics of todays so-called conservative ideology:
    there is no such thing as accountibility
    corporate rights are important…individual rights – not so much

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  12. PD Shaw says:

    mattb, I worked very briefly at the death peanalty appellate defender’s office in New Orleans as a student assistant. I don’t recall anything about Mr. Thompson, though I could have spoken with him on the phone.

    I’m not a supporter of really anything to do with the death penalty, but I find liability premised on failing to train extremely odd.

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  13. TG Chicago, so prosecutors will only be subject to valid accusations? Is that what you are saying?

    mattb, trying to tar me with some other sin? Is it possible the argument is valid in this case but not in that?

    hey norm, got projection?

    Clearly these problems would go away if only we gave the government more powers over our lives.

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  14. mattb says:

    I do question whether it makes sense to hold the office liable for not teaching it’s lawyers to do something that they should have known was wrong in law school, their ethics exam, from their parents, or their religious advisor, their conscience .

    I was just talking to a lawyer acquaintance and she made a similar argument (IANAL btw). That said, I follow Kevin Drumm’s argument that this pretty much removes any responsibility for the DA’s office to police it’s own people — especially within “law and order” districts.

    BTW, for the laywers here, did plaintiff’s attorney’s made the wrong argument?.

    BTW, at least one source is reporting that:

    Deegan later died, although he first confessed to a friend, also a former prosecutor, about hiding the evidence.

    http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2011/03/us_supreme_court_rejects_14_mi.html

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  15. mattb says:

    Oopss forgot to write that Deegan was the lead prosecutor on Thompson’s case.

    @Charles, I was simply suggesting that the argument to remove rights of citizens (including those enshrined within the constitution) for the purpose of expediency are problematic.

    Given that prior to this decision civil courts weren’t exactly awash in cases against DA’s offices, that there are procedures in place for the dismissal of spurious lawsuits, and further that the Supreme Court has previously ruled that police departments can be sued for civil damages over misconduct that rises to a certain, systemic level, I can’t imagine that this would have opened up the “flood gates.”

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  16. Matt & PD,

    If a truck driver comitts an act of negligence in the course of his employment and causes bodily injury or property damage, his employer will be held liable under a centuries old Common Law principle known as respondeat superior. There’s no reason this shouldn’t also apply to a District Attorney.

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  17. PD Shaw says:

    mattB, that’s interesting that Deegan is deceased; it may explain why he wasn’t sued individually (or he didn’t have a lot of money anway). But I think we need to get real about how much this lawsuit would change policy policy. The City of New Orleans (or its insurers) was going to have to pay the judgment; it might just as easily been the public librarians that took the brunt of any judgment. The events happened thirty years ago, internal policies and laws have changed. Connick hasn’t been the D.A. for a long while. The main culprit is deceased. The main motivation here needs to be redress for lost life. I believe my state has a fund set up for that (but we’re also insolvent).

    Also, the jury rejected the argument that the D.A. had a policy or custom that was the source of the deprivation of rights. The fact that other prosecutors learned of the concealment and did nothing sounds like a “cultural” issue to me.

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  18. TG Chicago says:

    @charles austin:

    TG Chicago, so prosecutors will only be subject to valid accusations? Is that what you are saying?

    No. Are you saying that the only people who should be subject to any accountability are those that are incapable of being invalidly accused?

    Clearly these problems would go away if only we gave the government more powers over our lives.

    Now you’re saying that a check against the power of a District Attorney is a case of giving the government more power. Can you explain that one?

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  19. PD Shaw says:

    Doug, I don’t believe government should be treated as just another “money-making” operation, and even if it were, there are limitations as to business’ liability for what appears to me to be criminal misconduct, not merely negligence. Heck, if the City of New Orleans were treated as a for-profit enterprise, it would have gone through bankruptcy two or three times since the bad acts occurred. Maybe today it would be simply a subsidiary of BP Amoco.

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  20. PD,

    Government should actually be held to a higher standard than private employers especially when, as here, a legal and ethical duty was breached and a man spent 14 years in prison because of it.

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  21. [...] Injustice From The Supreme Court, Courtesy Of Justice Thomas And His Fellow Conservatives (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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  22. mattb says:

    PD & Doug,

    Good points all around. There seem to be two questions here… first is the issue of financial reparations for lost life (and if I’m reading the story right, Thompson was falsely convicted on two charges).

    The second one, which I find more disconcerting, is the issue of curbing the power of a prosecutor’s office. Again, IANAL, but I’ve been privy to a lot of Habeaus petitions filed in my particular district (btw, they are all public documents). And while most are spurious, there are also enough cases of over-reach, if not flat out ethical or legal violations, by local prosecutors to leave me leery of lack of protections within the current system.

    This ruling seems to further reduce the penalties for the encouragement of “aggressive” prosecution techniques. So Doug, I totally agree with your trucker analogy.

    PD, as far as the time gap, give the length of time that it typically takes for these sorts of cases to work their way through the courts (especially in issues of wrongful conviction appeals), I don’t see how we might ever avoid the issue of the present paying for sins of the past.

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  23. Wayne says:

    As mantis has said in previous thread “The 9th circuit has ruled the law unconstitutional. That’s how it’s supposed to work”. Well now the highest court of the land the Supreme Court has ruled and that’s how it’s supposed to work. Now get over it and accept it. (Sarcasm off)

    In all seriousness, one can justifiably disagree with any court, law or piece of government. In this case I think the main responsibility should fall on the actual prosecutor or person who withheld the evidence. The DA and his office could be held liable but to a far lesser extent or in some cases none at all. How much depends on a great deal of facts which are unknown at this moment. The facts given puts my opinion in limbo.

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  24. I’m not suggesting that all cop or prosecutor’s are corrupt.

    Enough of them are though. And besides the ones who are out and out corrupt, there’s the even more sizable portion that are willing to look the other way.

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  25. In this case I think the main responsibility should fall on the actual prosecutor or person who withheld the evidence.

    But it can’t, because they have absolute immunity. Under previous rulings you can’t sue the individuals prosecuters unless you can prove they were deliberately breaking the law and now you can’t sue the office either.

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  26. Wayne says:

    Isn’t deliberately withholding evidence as a prosecutor against the law?

    I’m not that familiar with this particular case. However I bet it isn’t as all inclusive as many are trying to make it out. It strikes me that they are saying in this particular case such and such exist or actually didn’t exist therefore the ruling is this. In other cases a DA office could be sue.

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  27. mattb says:

    BTW – A really interesting analysis of the article at the Atlantic is really worth reading is a great unpacking of the issues as seen by the descenting side:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/when-the-supreme-court-fears-too-much-justice/73252/

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  28. Isn’t deliberately withholding evidence as a prosecutor against the law?

    Yes. It’s also nearly impossible to prove it was deliberate. And even if you could, you think his coworkers at the prosecuters office are going to bring charges against one of their buddies?

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