Supreme Court Examines Prosecution of Innocent Man

The U.S. Supreme Court, starting a new session this week, is already looking at a case of gross prosecutorial misconduct. Justices questioned Wednesday whether additional training would have prevented the constitutional violations that put a New Orleans man on death row for a murder he didn’t commit.

Our appeals attorneys know the case before the court. The defendant, John Thompson, was convicted of a 1984 murder and a separate carjacking. He was set free 18 years later after his lawyers discovered that the New Orleans prosecutors who put him on trial had deliberately concealed evidence — a blood sample taken at the scene of the carjacking — that could have proved his innocence.

Thompson sued the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office once he was exonerated, alleging that his rights were violated because prosecutors were poorly trained. A jury awarded him fourteen million dollars. The district attorney’s office appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some of the Supreme Court justices questioned Thompson’s lawyer about exactly what former district attorney Harry Connick Sr. (yes, the father of singer Harry Connick Jr.) should have done to prevent the violations.

Justice Alito asked what training should have been provided. Chief Justice Roberts asked whether officials also should be required to train prosecutors about the constitutional rules that limit their closing arguments during criminal trials or how to comply with other rules.

Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that if prosecutors violated Thompson’s rights intentionally, then training was not an issue. No training would have stopped intentional misconduct.

Justice Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, asked whether an hour of annual training would be enough.

In the case of Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors must tell defendants about evidence that points toward their innocence. The New Orleans district attorney’s office argued this week that it is not necessarily possible to know what evidence will point to innocence.

Thompson was convicted of a murder and a carjacking in 1984 and sentenced to death.

One month before his execution, an investigator found a lab report on blood found at the scene of the crime. The blood was type B, Thompson has type O. Prosecutors knew about this evidence, but chose to hide it.

In a 2003 retrial on the murder charge (the carjacking charge was dropped), Thompson was acquitted and set free.

Source: USA Today “Justices question DA’s liability for misconduct” 10/7/2010