An ideologically divided Supreme Court on Tuesday stripped a $14 million award from a wrongfully convicted man who had spent 14 years on death row and successfully sued New Orleans prosecutors for misconduct.
Conservative justices prevailed in the 5 to 4 ruling, which shielded the district attorney’s office from liability for not turning over evidence that showed John Thompson’s innocence.
Justice Clarence Thomas said Thompson could not show a pattern of “deliberate indifference” on the part of former district attorney Harry Connick Sr. in training his staff to turn over evidence to the defense team.
It was the first decision of the court term that split the justices into ideological camps, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized her disagreement by reading a summary of her dissent from the bench.
“I would uphold the jury’s verdict awarding damages to Thompson for the gross, deliberately indifferent and long-continuing violation of his fair trial right,” she said, adding that she was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
She said the actions of prosecutors under the control of Connick, who left office in 2003 and is the father of the famous singer of the same name, “dishonored” the obligation to turn over evidence favorable to the accused established in Brady v. Maryland nearly 50 years ago.
But the court has protected prosecutors from civil liability when they take cases to court to allow them to go about their work without fear of being sued. The question for the justices was whether a chief prosecutor could be sued for not ensuring that those who worked for him were properly trained and followed the law.
There is no dispute that one of Connick’s prosecutors did not turn over a blood test that would have shown Thompson innocent of one of the charges against him. But Thomas said that a single incident is not enough to prove liability for the district attorney’s office and that Thompson did not show a pattern of similar violations.
Lawyers are trained and ethically bound to honor Brady, Thomas wrote, regardless of whether additional training is provided. “A district attorney is entitled to rely on prosecutors’ professional training and ethical obligations,” Thomas said.
The court’s decision marks the apparent end of a decades-long trip through the legal process for Thompson, whose experience has produced a book, a potential movie deal and a dying confession from the prosecutor who withheld the evidence.
Thompson was convicted of armed robbery in 1985, before he stood trial for the murder of Raymond Liuzza, the son of a prominent New Orleans hotel owner. Prosecutors used the armed robbery conviction as a way to coerce Thompson not to take the stand in his own defense, and, after conviction, to secure the death penalty.
A pair of lawyers at a large Philadelphia law firm took up his case to spare him death; at one point, Thompson came within weeks of execution.
But in 1999, an investigator discovered that a blood test conducted in the armed robbery case showed that Thompson was not the perpetrator. Prosecutors acknowledged that it was withheld from Thompson’s attorneys.
The armed robbery charge was dismissed. A new trial in the murder case introduced new evidence and resulted in a verdict of not guilty. Thompson then sued the district attorney’s office, and a jury awarded him $14 million. In all, he was imprisoned for 18 years, 14 of them in isolation on death row.
Thompson returned to New Orleans, where he runs an organization to help exonerated inmates and travels frequently to speak about wrongful convictions.
Thomas was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Scalia and Alito wrote separately to emphasize their position that additional instruction from the district attorney would not have changed Thompson’s case.
It “was almost certainly caused not by a failure to give prosecutors specific training but by [a] miscreant prosecutor” determined to railroad Thompson, Scalia wrote.
But Ginsburg said there were other instances of prosecutors withholding evidence, such as a police report’s description of the shooter in the Liuzza killing that did not match Thompson.
“Ample evidence presented at the civil rights trial demonstrated that Connick’s deliberately indifferent attitude created a tinderbox in which Brady violations were nigh inevitable,” she wrote.
Thompson attorneys J. Gordon Cooney Jr. and Michael Banks said in a statement that the evidence showed “multiple constitutional violations by multiple prosecutors.”
“If prosecutors’ offices cannot be held accountable under the facts of this case, it is difficult to imagine when they would be accountable,” they said.
The case is Connick v. Thompson .