Injustice From The Supreme Court, Courtesy Of Justice Thomas And His Fellow Conservatives
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has told prosecutors that they can get away with withholding evidence that clears an innocent defendant and never have to face the consequences of their action. That is an outrage.
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: