By John Hollway, co-author of a book about John Thompson, Killing Time: An 18-Year Odyssey from Death Row to Freedom.
While we as a nation have been focused on the economy, the Middle East, and the tragedy in Japan, a majority of the Supreme Court has been busy limiting the ability of Americans to hold elected officials – specifically, District Attorneys’ offices - accountable for repeated and blatant prosecutorial misconduct that results in the unjust imprisonment of innocent men and women. The case in question is Connick v. Thompson, a case decided 5-4 late last month.
Absolute immunity has long been the law of the land for individual prosecutors who are acting in their core prosecutorial function. This makes sense; a prosecutor who is honestly and morally pressing criminal charges against someone he or she truly believes is guilty based on the evidence should not have to worry about a retaliatory lawsuit if they fail to get a guilty verdict.
The vast majority of prosecutions fall into the “honest and moral” category. Such conscientious self-policing was often not the case, however, in the District Attorney’s Office in Orleans Parish, La., run for almost 30 years by District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr. A disturbing number of convictions secured by Connick’s lawyers have been reversed due to the failure of his prosecutors to provide exculpatory evidence to defense lawyers as required by the Constitution and the 1962 Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland. (Four published opinions cite Brady violations on Connick’s watch between 1974 and 1988, an astonishing number when one considers how rarely judges embarrass prosecutors in writing.) And revelations of additional cases from the 1980s continue to surface today.
This leads us to John Thompson – arrested in 1985 at age 22 and charged with murder and an unrelated armed robbery. He was convicted of both crimes and sentenced to death. In 1999, with his appeals exhausted and only weeks before his execution, his lawyers unearthed a blood test, conducted by Assistant DAs before his trials but never disclosed to the defense. The blood test proved Thompson’s innocence in the armed robbery; subsequent investigation revealed a number of material witnesses to the murder known to prosecutors and never disclosed to the defense. Thompson secured a retrial in 2003, and was rapidly acquitted. He was released in 2003 after 18 years of unjust imprisonment, 14 of them on Death Row.
How did this happen?