By Dahlia Lithwick / Slate / Originally published April 1, 2011
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.
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. Failure to do so is a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. Yet the four prosecutors in Thompson’s case managed to keep secret the fact that they had hidden exculpatory evidence for 20 years. Were it not for Thompson’s investigators, he would have been executed for a murder he did not commit.
Both of Thompson’s convictions were overturned. When he was retried on the murder charges, a jury acquitted him after 35 minutes. He sued the former Louisiana district attorney for Orleans Parish, Harry Connick Sr. (yes, his dad) for failing to train his prosecutors about their legal obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense. A jury awarded Thompson $14 million for this civil rights violation, one for every year he spent wrongfully incarcerated. The district court judge added another $1 million in attorneys’ fees. A panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict. An equally divided 5th Circuit, sitting en banc, affirmed again.
For the remainder of this article, please go here.