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From justices, no justice

Sometimes there is such an egregious miscarriage of justice at the highest levels that your blood boils and you yield to despair. Such is a new Supreme Court decision.

Imagine being in prison for 18 years — 14 of them in solitary confinement awaiting execution — for a crime you did not commit. Imagine, after all that time, that new evidence was found that exonerated you, and a new trial found you innocent.

Imagine that it came to light that for years prosecutors in the district attorney's office deliberately withheld that evidence, and that a federal appeals court ruled that you were entitled to $14 million in damages. Imagine if the prosecutors then sued you, and the Supreme Court ruled against you, saying you don't get a dime because you hadn't proved a pattern of "deliberate indifference" by the prosecutors.

That is exactly what happened to John Thompson, who was convicted of an armed robbery and then a murder, neither of which he committed. Prosecutors in the New Orleans District Attorney's Office, led by Harry Connick Sr. (father of the entertainer), failed for years to disclose a bloodstained swath of fabric that proved Thompson was innocent.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that prosecutors misbehaved but ruled 5-4 that the city of New Orleans (prosecutors may not personally be sued for misconduct) was not liable for damages because Thompson did not prove Connick's failure to train lawyers in evidence law was a pattern.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, concluded that failing to train prosecutors against suppressing evidence does not mean a city purposefully is violating the Constitution.

Justice Ruth Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion for the four justices who said Thompson deserved the money. She felt so strongly she read her dissent.

She said, "What happened here … was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer's misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of (the definitive case Brady vs. Maryland) disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish (which) established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney's Office bears responsibility."

What the five justices decided means that a major safeguard to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct has been stricken, even if they admit their misconduct.

Ginsburg noted that not all law schools teach case law that requires prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence. Such questions are rarely asked on the Louisiana bar exam. She wrote that Connick never trained his lawyers to make certain they were abiding by the law. Connick, who left office in 2003, reportedly gave awards to prosecutors based on their conviction rates.

Connick, who himself was indicted for suppressing evidence, misstated the law during the current case. Ginsburg wrote that his tenure "created a tinderbox in Orleans Parish in which Brady violations were nigh inevitable. And when they did occur, Connick insisted there was no need to change anything, and opposed efforts to hold prosecutors accountable on the ground that doing so would make his job more difficult."

As with most Supreme Court decisions, the outcome affects not just a single man — the innocent John Thompson, who lost 18 years of his life with no recompense — but our entire society. The decision will make it difficult to bring incompetent or even corrupt prosecutors to justice.

The Innocence Project of New Orleans reviewed Connick's 28 years in office and concluded he gave the city a "legacy" of suppressing evidence. The project said 36 men convicted in Orleans Parish during Connick's tenure alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Nineteen have since had their sentences overturned or reduced as a result.

John Thompson, stunned by the Supreme Court's decision, says he intends to spend his life working to help wrongly convicted inmates. He has founded Resurrection After Exoneration. Sadly, he will not have the financial resources that the lower courts rightly concluded the city of New Orleans should have paid to help him pursue his goal.

© 2011 Scripps Howard News Service

From justices, no justice 04/03/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 3, 2011 5:30am]

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