In a controversial 5-4 decision this term, the Supreme Court ruled against a wrongfully convicted New Orleans man and voted to overthrow a $14 million jury verdict handed down in his favor. John Thompson was wrongfully accused of a murder and a robbery that he did not commit and horrifyingly spent eighteen years in prison, fourteen of those years on death row, before the evidence that exonerated him was brought to light.
One month before Thompson’s scheduled execution, a private investigator discovered evidence that exonerated him from his alleged crimes. The investigator also discovered that former prosecutors, led by District Attorney Harry Connick, had intentionally and inexcusably hid this exculpatory evidence for over fifteen years. Thompson was subsequently released from prison and the good people of New Orleans in turn awarded him a $14 million verdict in an ensuing civil trial against the district attorney.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, ruled to overthrow this jury verdict and found that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office did not violate its duties under the Constitution. Thompson was required to prove that DA Connick was deliberately indifferent to the need to train his prosecutors regarding releasing exculpatory evidence and that the lack of training caused the violation in this case. Finding in favor of the DA’s office, Justice Thomas stated that the DA’s office was not liable for failing to train its lawyers about their duty under to turn over evidence favorable to the accused. Although the DA’s office had concealed over a dozen pieces of evidence that would have exonerated Mr. Thomas, the majority held that the failure to properly train the prosecutors did not amount to a pattern of “deliberate indifference” significant enough to comprise a constitutional violation and justify such a civil verdict.
However, despite the majority’s contention that the actions of the district attorney’s office did not constitute “a pattern” of indifference, Innocence Project New Orleans discovered that under the tutelage of District Attorney Connick, the district attorney’s office had concealed evidence in 9 of 36 death row cases. Concealing evidence 25% of the time when a person’s life is on the line certainly appears to present a pattern worthy of attention and criticism. Accordingly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg penned a scathing dissent in which she called the Supreme Court’s decisions to shield the district attorney’s office from its own wrong doing “shameful.” Justice Ginsberg stated that her colleague’s decision to overthrow the Thompson verdict struck a severe blow to the accountability of prosecutors everywhere and to the ability of the public to hold them liable for their actions.
Opponents of the decision have obviously sided with Justice Ginsberg as the majority opinion appears to blatantly fly in the face of justice. Not only is turning over exculpatory evidence to the defense a constitutional requirement, it’s also firmly rooted in the concepts of rationality and morality. Continuing in the prosecution of an individual that the district attorney has reason to believe is innocent is contrary to the public good, clearly does not serve the interests of justice, and is a waste of tax payer money. Further, neglecting to instruct prosecutors that they must release exculpatory evidence is an epic failure by any district attorney’s office that should result in negative consequences, not complicity as the Supreme Court has shown in this case.
Unfortunately, this is not the first or last time prosecutors have concealed evidence in order to obtain a conviction and New Orleans is not the only city where this remains an issue. The problem is magnified by the fact that many inmates who are wrongfully accused or who are placed on death row receive sub-par legal representation because of their lack of financial means and the ever-increasing case load placed on public defenders. Legally speaking, the decision appears to have increased the municipal immunity for prosecutorial violations. However, placing the overarching legal implications aside, many remain personally outraged by the miscarriage of justice that has been heaped upon Mr. Thomas.