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.