John Thompson was convicted of murder in New Orleans in 1985 . After a trial where he opted not to testify on his behalf, Thompson was sentenced to death. He spent the next 18 years in prison, 14 of them on death row. Only a few weeks before his execution in 1999, a defense investigator learned that a cancer-stricken member of the prosecution had confessed on his deathbed to having withheld crime lab results from the defense, as well as removing a blood sample from the evidence room. In addition to this, Thompson’s defense learned that the New Orleans District Attorney’s office, led by Harry Connick Sr. (yes, the singer’s father), had also failed to disclose the fact that Thompson was implicated in the murder by a person who received a reward from the victim’s family, and that an eyewitness identification did not match Thompson. On this evidence, Thompson’s conviction was overturned on appeal. On re-trial, a jury exonerated Thompson in only 35 minutes.
Thompson proceeded to sue Connick, who conceded that his office did indeed commit a Brady violation in failing to reveal exculpatory evidence to Thompson’s defense. The trial jury found Connick failed to train his junior prosecutors on their Brady obligations and gave a verdict for Thompson of $14 million in civil rights damages plus $1 million in attorneys’ fees added by the judge. The 5th Circuit upheld and affirmed the trial court.
Thompson’s damages, however, evaporated on March 29, 2011–more than two decades after his conviction–when the Supreme Court, in Harry F. Connick, District Attorney, et al., v. John Thompson, a 5-4 opinion penned by the ever-quiet Justice Clarence Thomas, reversed, finding that a single Brady violation is not enough to result in § 1983 liability. According to Justice Thomas, “[t]he District Court should have granted Connick judgment as a matter of law on the failure-to-train claim because Thompson did not prove a pattern of similar violations that would “establish that the ‘policy of inaction’ [was] the functional equivalent of a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution.” (citations omitted)
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent tore into Thomas’s opinion, arguing that Connick and his staff committed not just one Brady violation, but so many as to establish a pattern severe enough that “a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office.”
In response, Justice Antonin Scalia’s aimed his majority concurrence at Justice Ginsburg, writing in a footnote that “[n]one of [the facts presented by Ginsburg of systemic deficient training in Brady procedure at Connick’s office are] relevant. Thompson’s failure-to-train theory at trial was not based on a pervasive culture of indifference to Brady, but rather on the inevitability of mistakes over enough iterations of criminal trials.”
The full opinion can be read here. The Thompson majority opinion has already been called “one of the meanest Supreme Court opinions ever” by Dalia Lithwick of Slate. Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic is somewhat more moderate, writing that “[t]his, indeed, was a bitterly-fought case. And it’s ultimately a decision from the Court’s majority that reveals outright hostility to the rights of the wrongfully convicted to adequately redress their conceded grievances. You would think such redress would be the least the law could do for men like Thompson.”