Clarence Thomas to Wrongfully Convicted Louisiana Death Row Inmate: "You Get Nothing."

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.”

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  • Incredibly shallow analysis. The blood evidence related to Thompson’s prior armed robbery conviction, not directly to the murder conviction. The only effect on the murder trial was Thompson’s argument that he was prevented from taking the stand in his own defense because of the armed robbery conviction. Whether or not that would have been likely to make any difference is speculation, noting, however, that Thompson was no choirboy at that time.

    The issues regarding the witness/reward and the eyewitness ID were reviewed exhaustively by the U.S. Fifth Circuit (161 F.3d 802) in 1998 and found not to be dispositive.

    Thompson was not exonerated because of the evidence (at least not in regard to his murder conviction). At re-trial, with eyewitnesses dead or missing and evidence missing as well, including the murder weapon, the jury, not surprisingly, did not have enough evidence to convict him.

    The point of the SCOTUS’ decision was that, for a deliberate act, such as willfully hiding evidence, there is no failure to train. There was no “training” that would have prevented the prosecutor from knowingly taking and hiding the evidence. This was not a mistake, and no degree of training could have prevented it.

    Unfortunately, as is often the case, the media runs amok without fully grasping the facts. Thus, the SCOTUS is made to appear wrong, or “mean”. I fully expect that superficial treatment by the media, but from a “Harvard Law School Publication”? For shame.

    • Nola, well said.

  • Justice served! Thompson should be happy that he was exonerated of the crime. Thank you Justice Thomas.

    • There was no justice here. A man lost 14 years of his life and was proven innocent. He should be given the money as a simple matter of justice as compensation for time taken away that cannot be regained. It should be punishment for a derelict office that improperly jailed him on death row. I wonder whether is another way to relitigate this case now that SCOTUS has ruled.

  • Please someone exercise those Constitutional Rights and get rid of Uncle Clarence.

  • This story should be a lesson to all, as it shows the flaws which are present in the honorable American justice system.

    Thompson’s case should have been done with after his exoneration a decade ago. Even a jury decided on his verdict. Now, a decade after he was acquitted, there are people still fighting on essentially a case that should have never existed. So, what are they fighting over… not over whether or not justice was correctly administered, but over what? Money.

    It has finally been made so clear, the character of our justice system. So what is justice? Is it where the rich aren’t accountable, and where a poor innocent citizen gets sentenced to death? I don’t know, but that is what it seems like to me.

  • If anyone needs convinvcing that something is wrong with the American justice system here it is. Without regard to a retrial and the availability of witnesses or evidence, that is not the accused’s burden, but rather that of the courts. If they failed to maintiain the evidence and witness testimony that’s their problem. If someone died since the original trial that is just a fact of life, their testimony is preserved.

    The point here is whether or not someone who spends eighteen years in prison for an either wrongful conviction or one that was the result of hidden or tainted state evidence, is entititled to monetary compensation, and the answer should be a resounding “YES”!

    This is the classic example of the “tail wagging the dog”. If the prosecutor hid evidence – which this wouldn’t be a first of its kind event – this is not a training related mishap, this is a moral and ethical misguided process wherein the need to convict is greater than the need to serve justice fairly and indiscriminately.

    Any tainting, withholding or modifying of evidence, testimony or witness coersion and or intimidation for the purpose of gaining a guilty verdict is dispicable and should be unlawful.

    Our creative justices have now given the prosecutorial powers even more leeway in not only winning convictions at any cost, but also with immunity. Is there any wonder why there is less and less respect for the courts and supporting agencies like police, probation and incarcerations?

    The justices again appear to have negelected the right to be innocent until proven guilty, to a fair and untampered trial and reasonable expectation of exoneration for wrongful conviction again making the system right and the wrongly accused or convicted – still wrong.

    Any body that has been locked up wrongly or otherwise for a period of twenty years has a lot of challenges to face unless they have a very strong support system waiting for them. That is usually not the case unfortunately. But somehow, the corrections departments, the courts and legislatures collectively can’t see this as a contributing factor to recidivism in the US.

    All people being released after a long incarceration period should be given some form of monetary support for a defined period to get them readjusted and grounded. In the above case, monetary compensation for the income lost over the number of years behind bars would have sufficed but that opportunity was dashed by well paid justices whose reponsibility it is to see that justice was in fact served. In this case I don’t see how it was. How would they respond if it were them one has to wonder.

    • He should have sued the State and not Connick?

  • Clarence Thomas is a pathetic excuse for a Supreme Court Justice. George Bush Sr. should be ashamed for having put this pathetic vindictive loser on the Supreme Court. Thomas is an embarrassment to America! Sadly, this little person will continue to get a good paycheck for doing nothing of value for America.

  • Harvard also uses a misleading Title in that the Defendent “gets nothing”. His state has a formula for compensation for a wrongful conviction. If the amount awarded by the State is an injustice then it should be addressed at that level. The Court did what they were supposed to do and followed the law and the constitution.

  • Barbara Streisand is amazingly annoying, but it looks like she was also amazingly right.

    And people will STILL vote for Republicans?

  • If the Thompson decision is correct and in accordance with the law and the Constitution, then it is safe to assume that this majority oould have sided with Taney in the Dred Scott decision. Imagine that. Justice Thomas siding with the majority in Dred Scott!