In my upcoming book California, State of Collusion, I offer countless examples of the many violations prosecutors routinely commit to secure the maximum amount of convictions, regardless of whether there is reasonable doubt, or even flat-out evidence that the defendant is not guilty.
The story of John Thompson, a New Orleans resident who passed away last October, is a tragedy that any emphatic human being can relate to. Talking about Brady violations can have little meaning for the public, until they see how these violations can destroy an innocent man’s life.
John Thompson spent 14 years on death row, but the prosecutors in his case were the real criminals in the story. Unlike Thompson, who survived various execution dates and lived to see the verdict against him overturned, many others have perished without any glimpse of justice.
In 1985, Thompson was arrested in New Orleans for murdering a hotel executive who was well-known in the local community. With a high-profile victim, prosecutors were naturally under pressure to find someone they could accuse of the crime very quickly, and that is exactly what happened. The ultimate result of that speedy conviction was a death sentence.
Barely a month before he was scheduled for execution in 1999, a private investigator working for Thompson’s Innocence Project lawyers found evidence that the DA in his case had received and concealed blood test results that proved Thompson could not have been guilty of one of the crimes he was being accused of.
A recent New Yorker podcast tells the shocking tale of how prosecutors simply wanted Thompson to be sentenced to death. Because he had no prior criminal offenses, that was not possible, so, they found a carjacking they could charge him with.
They quickly obtained a guilty verdict, and went on to secure the death penalty in the murder case.
In his deathbed, a former assistant prosecutor told a friend that he regretted concealing the blood evidence from Thompson’s attorneys. This is a Brady violation, as prosecutors are required by law to share any exculpatory evidence they may find, with the defense.
But Thompson was also innocent of the murder, and within three years, both verdicts had been overturned, and he became a free man.
His innocence was so crystal clear that the jury only deliberated for a half hour.
The jury awarded $14 million in damages to Thompson in 2007, but in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that he should not receive a penny.
The man who had spent 14 years confined in an isolation cell, locked up in there for 23 hours every single day, was devastated, but more than anything, he was shocked.
The only Supreme Court Justice who dissented, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said in court documents, that several prosecutors had conspired to keep from the defendant, “year upon year, evidence vital to his defense.”
The DA at the time of Thompson’s prosecution was Harry Connick Sr. (Harry Connick Jr.’s father), whose “tough on crime” stance was well known in Louisiana. In fact, reporters from The New Yorker interviewed Connick Sr., who didn’t show an inkling of remorse and tried to dismiss the gravity of the matter with nervous small talk.
Following the events that led to Thompson’s release, the Connick Sr. was not reelected.
After the Supreme Court ruling came out, Thompson commented, “If I’d spilled hot coffee on myself, I could have sued the person who served me the coffee. But I can’t sue the prosecutors who nearly murdered me.”
In a later editorial for Fairpunishment.org, Thompson wrote,
“Five years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Thompson v. Connick that I deserved no compensation, instead declaring prosecutors essentially immune from lawsuits. The Court ruled that education, training, internal supervision, bar oversight, and criminal sanctions were sufficient protections to ensure that prosecutors would consistently act within their legal and ethical guidelines. Yet each of those things were–and remain–essentially a joke in my case.”
Thompson had been charged with murder based on his possession of the murder weapon, which he had purchased from a friend. That ‘friend’ became his co-defendant and decided to pin the murder on Thompson to secure a shorter sentence.
Thompson was not even allowed to testify at his own trial, and whatever prosecutors said was taken by the jury as the truth. His attorneys at the time didn’t work very hard to try to save his life, and the prosecutors took advantage of a poor, black man who had no one to stand up for him.
Following his exoneration, Thompson created an organization called Resurrection after Exoneration to help others who were going through the same ordeal.
He once wrote an opinion column for the New York Times where he asked a very simple question,
“I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued.”
In Louisiana as in California, and elsewhere in America, this is what we defense attorneys have to deal with every day.
A shocking number of prosecutors and judges are much more interested in filling up our nation’s prisons than in working in the service of justice, making sure no innocents are jailed and no criminals roam free.
The fact that the Supreme Court did not uphold the damages Thompson so clearly deserved is a testimony to the fact that corruption in our justice system goes from the lowest to the highest hierarchies.
As long as prosecutors cannot be held accountable for Brady violations, innocent people will continue to spend years and years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
As long as judges and prosecutors keep watching each other’s backs with no concern for the civil rights of defendants, we will continue to live in a state of unstoppable collusion.
Joseph Tully is a certified expert California criminal defense attorney, one of an elite few having earned that designation. His new book, California: State of Collusion, launches next month. To connect with Joseph: [hidden email]
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