Court rejects award for death row error
Majority says civil case lacked proof
WASHINGTON – A bitterly divided Supreme Court tossed out a jury verdict Tuesday 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-District Attorney 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 v. 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 convictions for the murder of a hotel executive, Thompson was due to be put to death. But a private investigator hired by his lawyer found a blood test in the police lab which showed the man wanted for a related car jacking had a type “B” blood, while Thompson’s was type “O.”
Thompson had been charged and convicted of an attempted car jacking 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 charges that had sent him to death row. His new defense lawyers found other evidence that had been hidden, including eyewitnesses reports from the murder scene. Bystanders reported seeing a black man who was 6 feet tall with close-cropped hair running away holding a gun. Thompson was 5-foot-8 and had a bushy “Afro” at the time.
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 the second trial.
He successfully sued the prosecutor’s office in New Orleans, arguing Connick showed deliberate indifference by not providing adequate training for assistant district attorneys. Thompson won $14 million in damages in the civil suit.
In rejecting the judgment, Thomas described the case as a “single incident” where 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 of the blood test that was hidden. They also showed evidence of other similar cases in New Orleans where key evidence was concealed from defense lawyers.