Washington — 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.
In rejecting the judgment, Justice Thomas described the case as a "single
incident" in which mistakes were made. He said Thompson did not prove
a pattern of similar violations that would justify holding the city’s
government liable for the wrongdoing. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
joined to form the majority.
However, Thompson’s lawyers showed that at least four prosecutors
knew about the hidden blood test. They also showed evidence of other,
similar cases in New Orleans in which key evidence was concealed from
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*Tim Powers is an attorney licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court
of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For
legal advice about any specific legal question you should directly consult