John Thompson

  • July 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Theo Shaw, a William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholar, University of Washington School of Law; and one of the young students charged in the “Jena 6” case. Follow him on Twitter @theorshaw

    Glenn Ford, imprisoned nearly half his life for a murder he didn’t commit, died earlier this month after a battle with lung cancer. Socially, though, he died 30 years ago – in part because of our nation’s underfunded public defender systems and prosecutorial misconduct, and lack of accountability.

    As an intern for the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) in 2010, I worked on multiple cases where prosecutorial misconduct and lawyers’ ineffectiveness resulted in wrongful convictions. Some of our clients received ineffective legal representation because our nation’s public defender systems are so terribly underfunded lawyers are compelled to represent more people than is ethically possible, which increases the likelihood of wrongful convictions.

    Compounding those injustices are government abuses of power. During Ford’s initial trial, prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to his defense. Disturbingly, Ford’s nightmare isn’t unique. During my summer with the IPNO, I befriended John Thompson. He spent 18 years in prison—14 of those years on death row—for a crime he didn’t commit. In his case, prosecutors also withheld evidence favorable to his defense; and the gross injustice of government abuse is a reality for many more defendants.

    After his release, Ford filed a petition seeking compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. Ford's request was denied because, according to District Judge Katherine Dorroh, he failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was factually innocent. This is clear for me: a criminal justice system built on the principle of Equal Justice Under Law should require more – for justice and fairness.

    For our society to banish these injustices it must face reality and take action. 

    In our juvenile and criminal justice systems, race and poverty significantly determines outcome. In fact, there are important cause and effect relations between race and poverty. It’s undeniable and ethically inexcusable that for indigent and racial minorities in our justice systems, both historically and within our contemporary society, the right to counsel is violated almost daily.

    As a prospective public interest lawyer, I am strongly committed and passionate about the right to competent legal representation and equal justice for indigent people, racial minorities, juvenile offenders, condemned prisoners, and those wrongly convicted in our legal system. This means I am just as committed to fighting systemic poverty, challenging racial discrimination in our criminal justice system, and ending human rights abuses in our juvenile and adult detention facilities, practices such as solitary confinement, guard abuse, and degrading conditions of confinement.

    My vision and hope for a just society is also fueled by a deeply held universal concern (across race) for all persons who have had or will have their constitutional rights violated. Hence, I am committed to using my knowledge (legal and otherwise) to be a powerful and compassionate voice for every person accused of a crime. In this way I hope to help this country realize the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright



  • October 12, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Sherrilyn Ifill, Professor of Law, University of Maryland School of Law

    There's a story to be told from the intense media focus on last week's Snyder v. Phelps case in the Supreme Court. To be sure, the case - involving a challenge by the father of a slain serviceman to protests conducted by a fringe religious organization at his son's funeral - is an important one in which the Court may provide importance guidance on the reach of the First Amendment. The protests at the military funerals, in which followers of the Westboro Baptist "church," hold up signs that celebrate the death of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Westboro members regard as a punishment for what they believe is U.S. tolerance of gays in the military - are repulsive by almost any sane standard. Given the lurid facts of the case, and the tension between our sympathy for Alfred Snyder and our traditional robust protection of even repulsive speech under the First Amendment, it's perhaps not surprising that almost every major news outlet and Supreme Court blog reported on last Thursday's oral argument.

    But it's telling that on the same day Snyder was argued, the Court also heard oral argument in Connick v. Thompson - a case with considerably more concrete implications for the lives of thousands of criminal defendants. In Connick, the Court will decide whether a man who was convicted of capital murder and held in solitary confinement on death row for 14 years can hold a prosecutor's office civilly liable for violating his constitutional rights by withholding exculpatory evidence from defense counsel and failing to train prosecutors in their obligation to furnish this information to defense counsel. The obligation of prosecutors to turn over such evidence to defense counsel was first established by the Supreme Court in 1963. But the New Orleans district attorney's office argues in Connick that it cannot be held liable for a single incident of violating Brady. Instead, the prosecutor argues that they can only be held liable if it is demonstrated that they engaged in a pattern of withholding such evidence. In other words, only if we repeatedly violated the Constitution can we be compelled to pay for allowing an innocent man to be imprisoned and almost executed.

    With the exception of an article I wrote for The Root, and an in-depth treatment by John Hollway in SLATE, (Hollway's book on the Thompson case has just been released) the oral argument in Connick escaped media and Supreme Court blog attention. And this is its own story. Connick (like last year's Pottawattamie, IA v. McGhee case) is a case that peels back the cover on an aspect of the criminal justice system that is too little examined in the mainstream media, and is unfortunately too well-known to many African Americans. The willingness of some prosecutors to withhold evidence that would likely exculpate criminal defendants, or as in the Pottawattamie case, to deliberately fabricate evidence to frame criminal suspects is a reality of our criminal justice system. The fact that these instances are rare compared to the thousands of cases in which prosecutors act ethically, makes them no less corrosive of public confidence in our justice system. That the victims of this kind of misconduct are often African Americans adds yet another layer of ugliness that further complicates the public response. Unfortunately, it may also explain why these stories - even when they make it to the Supreme Court - get so little attention. When the victims are prominent and white - as in the case of the Duke lacrosse team members accused of rape - prosecutorial misconduct makes an intense, but still too-brief appearance on the front pages of our newspapers.