In 1985, John Thompson was convicted of murder in Louisiana. Having already been convicted in a separate armed robbery case, he opted not to testify on his own behalf in his murder trial. He was sentenced to death and spent 18 years in prison—14 of them isolated on death row—and watched as seven executions were planned for him. Several weeks before an execution scheduled for May 1999, Thompson’s private investigators learned that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence that would have cleared him at his robbery trial. This evidence included the fact that the main informant against him had received a reward from the victim’s family, that the eyewitness identification done at the time described someone who looked nothing like him, and that a blood sample taken from the crime scene did not match Thompson’s blood type.
A jury awarded Thompson $14 million for this prosecutorial misconduct, this civil rights violation, “one for every year he spent wrongfully incarcerated.” Thompson…successfully sued the prosecutor’s office in New Orleans, arguing former District Attorney Harry Connick showed deliberate indifference by not providing adequate training for assistant district attorneys. Yes, it’s the singer’s father.
But the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Clarence Thomas, “tossed out the verdict, finding that the district attorney can’t be responsible for the single act of a lone prosecutor. The Thomas opinion is an extraordinary piece of workmanship, matched only by Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurring opinion…[They] have produced what can only be described as a master class in human apathy.”
This was not the first recent violation of the Brady ruling in Louisiana; it was at least the fifth. “In 1963, in Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors must turn over to the defense any evidence that would tend to prove a defendant’s innocence.”
I find this all oddly comforting. I wrote here concerning a recent conversation I had discussing the death penalty with a work colleague. But I didn’t get much into WHY I oppose it. I admit that much of it is the fact that I am generally queasy about the state as an agent of death.
But even if that were not the case, it’s clear that the state gets it wrong sometimes, and this ruling, making prosecutors seemingly exempt from suffering any consequences of their malfeasance, makes me more resolute in my opposition to capital punishment. If people can literally die from such horrific prosecutorial sloppiness that receives no consequence, then it makes virtually all capital trials inherently suspect to my mind.