Supreme Court

Conservative Supreme Court Judges Overturn Judgment for Wrongly Convicted John Thompson

| by Mark Berman Opposing Views

In a 5-4 decision split along the bench's clearly defined conservative and liberal fault line, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a $14 million judgment to a New Orleans man who spent 18 years in prison -- 14 of them on death row -- for a murder he did not commit.

John Thompson was convicted of murder in 1985. In 2002 a state appeals court set aside the  conviction, ruling that he'd been unconstitutionally deprived of his right to testify during his trial. Thompson was given a new trial and he was acquitted.

However, before his original trial, Thompson was convicted of attempted robbery in a separate incident. Prosecutors used that conviction to help get the death penalty for the murder.

But it turns out prosecutors withheld evidence that proved Thompson's innocence in that attempted robbery -- a report that said Thompson's blood type did not match the robber's. That crucial information was never turned over to the defense.

So Thompson sued the District Attorney's office, saying former DA Harry Connick (the father of the singer) showed deliberate indifference by not providing adequate training for assistant district attorneys on Brady rights, which dictate when to turn over evidence to a suspect's lawyer that could prove their innocence.

A jury agreed and awarded him $14 million. After a split appeals court upheld the ruling, the Supreme Court overturned it.

Speaking for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said, "Prosecutors are not only equipped but are also ethically bound to know what Brady entails and to perform legal research when they are uncertain.

"A district attorney is entitled to rely on prosecutors' professional training and ethical obligations in the absence of specific reason, such as a pattern of violations, to believe that those tools are insufficient to prevent future constitutional violations."

But in a rare oral dissent read directly from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that Thompson deserved damages for "the gross, deliberately indifferent and long-continuing violation of his fair trial rights."

She added, "Ample evidence presented at the civil rights trial demonstrated that Connick's deliberately indifferent attitude created a tinderbox in which Brady violations were nigh inevitable."

Ginsburg said prosecutors also withheld information during the murder trial. "The prosecution in Thompson's murder trial failed to produce a police report containing an eyewitness description of the murderer as six feet tall with close cropped hair." Thompson is 5' 8' and had an afro. 

"No fewer than five prosecutors concealed, year upon year, this and other evidence vital to Thompson's defense."

Thompson, who was weeks away from execution several times, got $150,000 in compensation from Louisiana, the maximum the state allows.

Those who sided with the majority included: Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Kennedy
Those who sided with the minority included: Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer.