The Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a $14 million jury award in favor of a former death row inmate who was freed after prosecutorial misconduct came to light.
The 5-to-4 decision divided along the court’s ideological fault line and prompted the first dissent read from the bench this term, from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The former inmate, John Thompson, had sued Harry F. Connick, a former district attorney in New Orleans, saying his office had not trained prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence. Prosecutors in the office had failed to give Mr. Thompson’s lawyers a report showing that blood at a crime scene was not his.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that only a pattern of misconduct would warrant holding Mr. Connick accountable for what happened on his watch.
Mr. Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them on death row. “I was delivered an execution warrant in my cell seven times,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “I was only weeks from being executed when my lawyers got the killing stopped.”
First, for those of you wondering: yes, that's the father of Harry Connick, the singer....longtime DA in Nawlin's.
But incredibly, even after the prosecutor who put him there made a death-bed confession of his own, admitting what was basically criminal conduct on behalf of DA's office, the five reasoned that Thompson was not entitled to compensation because there wasn't a "pattern of misconduct," and that prosecutorial immunity should apply to even the most egregious of "errors."
“The role of a prosecutor,” Justice Thomas wrote [for Scalia, Kennedy, Roberts & Alito], “is to see that justice is done.”
“By their own admission,” he continued, “the prosecutors who tried Thompson’s armed robbery case failed to carry out this responsibility. But the only issue before us is whether Connick, as the policy maker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train the attorneys under his authority.”
The answer to that question was no, Justice Thomas wrote, given what he said was an absence of proof concerning a pattern of misconduct.
Obviously, the "liberal" wing of the court disagreed.
In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “no fewer than five prosecutors” were complicit in a violation of Mr. Thompson’s constitutional rights. “They kept from him, year upon year, evidence vital to his defense.”
From the dissent:
A District Attorney aware of his office’s high turnover rate, who recruits prosecutors fresh out of law school and promotes them rapidly through the ranks, bears responsibility for ensuring that on-the-job training takes place. In short, the buck stops with him.Guess not. I think Thompson, who has been off death row for several years now, put it best:
“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.”The case is Connick v. Thompson (2011)