Civil Liberties

Supreme Court Will Hear Another Prosecutorial Misconduct Case (and May Even Get to Rule This Time)

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Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to a $14 million award that a wrongly convicted Louisiana man won after serving 18 years in prison, 14 of them in solitary confinement on death row. New Orleans prosecutors who tried John Thompson for armed robbery in 1985 failed to turn over blood evidence that would have exonerated him. Then they used the robbery conviction to prevent Thompson from taking the stand in his murder trial and to obtain a death sentence (by noting that he had already been sentenced to 50 years without parole for the armed robbery). After an investigator working for Thompson's attorneys discovered the blood evidence in 1999, Thompson received a new trial on the murder charge and was acquitted.

A federal jury concluded that the district attorney's office was liable because it failed to properly train its prosecutors, who should have known they were constitutionally obligated to share exculpatory evidence with the defense. A 5th Circuit panel unanimously upheld (PDF) the verdict on appeal, and the full court split evenly on the question, allowing the jury's decision to stand. Asking the Supreme Court to review the case, former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. argued that his office should not be held responsible for depriving Thompson of his right to due process because Thompson had not shown a pattern of misconduct or demonstrated a direct connection between a lack of training and the error that led to his conviction. (If the prosecutors deliberately withheld the evidence, meaning that lack of training was not really the issue, would that make their office less culpable or more?) More controversially, Connick claimed the rationale for granting prosecutors personal immunity—that the threat of lawsuits would have a chilling effect on their ability to do their jobs—also applies to the government's liability. The implication seems to be that the proper pursuit of justice requires preventing victims of injustice like Thompson, who was nearly executed on several occasions, from recovering any damages at all.

SCOTUS Blog has the briefs in the case, Connick v. Thompson, here. Another recent Supreme Court case, Pottawattamie County v. McGhee and Harrington, involved the related but distinct question of when prosecutors can be held personally liable because they screwed over defendants while functioning as investigators rather than prosecutors. That case, which Radley Balko discussed here and here, was settled for $12 million before the Court issued a ruling.

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  1. I had no idea Harry Connick Jr.’s father was such a thuggish ass.

    1. his son can play the thuggish ass in the movie

  2. This isn’t unique. Our former DA abused his office to find out who were sending out faxes that made the local megalithic hospital look bad (non-profit who’s the biggest rent seeker out there, just for starters). Then, when he got sued, claimed he was immune due to his office. He recently won an appeal that effectively threw out the case.

    Just google Ken Hodges Albany, GA for more details.

  3. More controversially, Connick claimed the rationale for granting prosecutors personal immunity?that the threat of lawsuits would have a chilling effect on their ability to do their jobs?also applies to the government’s liability

    And vigilante justice would not have a chilling effect?

    As a matter of fact, why has there not been a single case of vigilante justice already? People are perfectly willing to resort to vigilantism when their holy prophet is defamed in a cartoon, or if their unmarried daughters’ cherries are popped open.

  4. New Orleans prosecutors who tried John Thompson for armed robbery in 1985 failed to turn over blood evidence that would might have exonerated him.

    Fixed. Juries are unpredictable. Just because one acquitted doesn’t mean all other juries would do the same.

  5. Juries are unpredictable.

    No they’re not. If you’re not a cop, a “prominent citizen,” a woman who killed her husband, or a fuckable guy charged with rape on no evidence at all, you’re convicted.

    There’s no some-guy-accused-of-whatever case I wouldn’t bet my house on. Guilty.

    1. No they’re not. If you’re not a cop, a “prominent citizen,” a woman who killed her husband, or a fuckable guy charged with rape on no evidence at all, you’re convicted.

      Why is that?

  6. Damn you Radley! I was looking forward to a nice, non-ulcerous forming evening.

    Oh. Great, now I have to take a tums when I read a Jacob post, too.

    Full Disclosure: Jacob and Radley own huge amounts of GlaxoSmithKline stock!

    On a serious note: Thompson had not shown a pattern of misconduct…

    I see, the “only once” defense. So, if I rape that girl once, it’s OK?

  7. LOL, the Supreme Kangaroo court is at it again LOL

    Lou
    http://www.anon-web.hitart.com

  8. A municipality is not liable under section 1983 simply because it employs a tortfeasor, but only if a municipal policy or custom directly causes injury.

    This is the problem. Employing the tortfeasor (is that really a word?) should be enough.

    Also, reading thru the details, the guy who withheld the evidence admitted it on his deathbed in 1994, but the guy he told (also a DA) didnt bother to mention it to anyone, preferring to let someone rot on death row. How fucking evil do you have to be to do that?

  9. Williams’s misunderstanding of Brady was so fundamental that the district judge visibly registered surprise at Williams’s testimony, prompting Williams to change his testimony before the jury.

    Wow.

  10. I’ll bet ANYTHING that they don’t give this nigga a penny.

    The supreme court will rule in the DAs favor. I’ll bet anything.

    1. Every now and then, the four or five “law and order” types surprise us.

      But I’m not holding my breath on this one.

      1. This is an interesting one because Scalia tends to bash prosecutors who cant follow obvious procedure (while letting cops slide) but that doesnt say what he will do about immunity for the municipalities.

  11. If any lawyers read this, I have talked to one and he agreed with my general thought, which is that lawyers dont need to be fucking trained for this, that in law school they learn to turn over evidence to the defense. Really, what lawyer out there didnt already know to turn over blood evidence to the defense?

    Any lawyers have a different take on this or is this so freakin obvious that it makes the supremes discussing it silly.

    My thought on this is, Im all in favor of giving the municipalities civil immunity in return for criminal liability against the district attornies.

    1. …and you’re right.

      If you’re a lawyer, in that job, you have no excuse whatsoever – none; zero – for such behavior. You cannot claim you didn’t know that rule because you weren’t adequately “trained” yet. Any lawyer who pulls that bullshit stunt is a lying fucking sack of shit, or utterly incompetent. It is your duty to know the constitutional requirements and limitations on criminal prosecutions, because it’s your job, after all.

      I’m truly and fully sick of this “all power to the state” shit. I’m going to order a few thousand more rounds of ammo from Cheaper Than Dirt and sock it away to prepare for the end of times.

    2. IAAL, also, and yes, you are right.

      Something this fundamental, in a death penalty case, should be grounds for disbarment.

      1. I would actually like to see the threat of criminal proceedings in cases like this.

    3. You don’t even have to be a lawyer — I knew that from TV shows like LA Law and the Practice. It’s like knowing that police have to Mirandize suspects.

  12. I bet prosecutors would WELCOME loss of immunity if the alternative was that open season was declared on the corrupt ones.

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