Civil Liberties

The Disappearing Blood Stain

How New Orleans prosecutors nearly killed a man by withholding evidence

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John Thompson spent 18 years in a Louisiana prison, 14 of them in a windowless, six-by-nine-foot death row cell. According to a federal appeals court, "There were multiple mentally deranged prisoners near him who would yell and scream at all hours and throw human waste at the guards." Thompson, whose execution was scheduled half a dozen times, was a few weeks away from death by lethal injection when his life was saved by a bloody scrap of cloth.

Although four prosecutors in the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office were aware of this evidence, Thompson didn't learn about it until 14 years after his death sentence, when an investigator hired by his pro bono lawyers discovered a crucial crime lab report. In a case the Supreme Court agreed to hear last week, the prosecutors' boss, former D.A. Harry Connick, argues that his office should not be held responsible for the egregious misconduct that led to Thompson's 18-year ordeal. But if it isn't, no one will be, an outcome that would not only deprive Thompson of compensation but endanger every American's due process rights.

In 1985 Thompson, then 22, was arrested for the murder of a hotel executive who was robbed and shot outside his New Orleans home. After Thompson's picture appeared in a local newspaper, three people who were victims of an armed robbery a few weeks after the murder thought they recognized their assailant.

Unbeknownst to Thompson or his attorney, the robber was cut while scuffling with one of his victims, leaving blood on the man's pants. The blood was type B; Thompson's blood type is O. He never got a chance to present this exculpatory evidence because his prosecutors never turned it over, even though they were constitutionally required to do so.

The prosecutors decided to try Thompson for the robbery first, hoping to prevent him from taking the stand at his murder trial (since that would allow them to impeach his credibility by mentioning the earlier conviction) and to enhance the likelihood of a death sentence. They succeeded on both counts.

After the concealed evidence came to light, Thompson's robbery conviction was thrown out, and he won a new murder trial, during which he presented 13 pieces of evidence that, like the blood test, had been withheld by prosecutors. The jury acquitted him after deliberating for half an hour.

In 2003 Thompson won a $14 million award from a federal jury that concluded D.A. Connick had acted with "deliberate indifference" by failing to train his underlings in their constitutional obligations. An appeals court upheld that award in 2008.

It's hard to say which would be more appalling: if prosecutors intentionally hid the blood test, or if they did not know they were required to share it. There is evidence to support both theories.

In 1994, after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, one prosecutor told a former colleague (who kept this information to himself for five years) that he had deliberately withheld the blood evidence. But it's not clear he knew that was illegal at the time of Thompson's robbery trial, and testimony in Thompson's civil case indicated that other prosecutors in the D.A.'s office, including Connick himself, did not know they were legally required to share the crime lab report. Thompson's lawyers note that one prosecutor's "misunderstanding" of the relevant Supreme Court ruling "was so fundamental that the district judge visibly registered surprise," prompting him to change his testimony.

The Supreme Court has ruled that local governments can be held liable for failing to train officials in their constitutional responsibilities when the need is "obvious," as with teaching police officers the proper use of deadly force. The need for prosecutors to respect defendants' due process rights is no less obvious. And since prosecutors themselves have absolute immunity for their trial-related misconduct, the threat of lawsuits against their employers is an important safeguard to prevent the pursuit of victory from trumping the pursuit of justice.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Good Morning reason!

    1. Good Morning Suki!

  2. Good morning Suki!

  3. prosecutors should be prosecuted for this kind of misconduct. They by this kind of actions are no better than the people they put in prisons.

    1. They are worse. Most criminals don’t pretend to help society by their actions.

      1. Agreed on both counts. Wouldn’t this kind of behavior be “obstruction of justice” at the very least if anyone besides a prosecutors’ office had done it?

        1. I have said that until I have almost popped. Who prosecutes the prosecutors? Well, they did get one thing right from elementary school – justice is blind…but not in a good way.

    2. I have to agree with BrentM. We expect prosecutors to seek justice, not see haw many people they can put in jail.

      That fool shuld be charged and jailed for his actions. When the law is applied inconsistantly or in an overly aggresive manner, then people lose respect for the law.

      1. Please excuse the mis-spellings. My keyboard is trying to die on me

      2. When the law is applied inconsistantly or in an overly aggresive manner, then people lose respect for the law.

        I wish. I think that on the balance, only a very small percentage of people get upset about things like this — basically the people who were directly screwed over, and those nutty libertarians. I think pretty much everyone else sees abuse as strength and conviction.

      3. I think it is generally accepted that certain professions have perks.
        If you work in the restaurant world you get to eat for free much of the time.
        Pilots rarely spend money on air travel for themselves and their families.
        A benefit of writing and enforcing the law is being held to a different set of rules.

    3. Don’t you know that only the very best of us gravitate to “public service”? don’t you know that??? Obama is making a special effort to entice even more people to become “public servants” – with student loan forgiveness and so on…because public service is such a noble pursuit.

  4. If these people, prosecutors and even cops where applicable, were personally responsible for their actions, instead of the “public” there wouldn’t be this kind of thing. Instead, they can do whatever they wish with no penalty. IMO, if some prosecutor tries to get an innocent guy killed, he should be put on trial for attempted murder.

  5. Cue some Debbie Schussel acolyte to come in shortly and tell us why Thompson is really guilty and we’re a bunch of idiots for not believing the plain facts that show that he wants to kill white folks and we can’t believe the liberal judges and media that conspired to let him go.

    If you can’t tell, my visit to that thread yesterday has scarred me for life and made me understand why my lefty friends think conservatives are idiots.

    1. the liberal judges and media that conspired to let him go.

      You needed the word “elite” in there somewhere. And you should preferably tie this all back to a blatant effort to turn the US into a socialist nation.

      1. I’m still trying to get the lingo down. So how’s this?

        PUHLEEASE! Only an elitist, liberal organization like the judiceary and innocince projects that wants to turn our GOD-FEARING country into a bunch of socialists with there idiology would lie that this shill for Islamo-fascism is innocent. He clearly wanted to kill real Americans and if he wasn’t guilty the Honorable DA wouldn’t have used it’s offices to put him in jail. The B/O blood thing doesn’t mean anything and liberal judges and media use it all the time to let murderers go so that they can kill you’re children and help them establish communism here in this GOD-BLESSED land.

        I hope that these judges get they’re wish and when we have Communism they’ll be the first ones liquidated.

        Any better? I’d like to think it was over the top, but if I posted it on her site I’d probably get bashed for being too liberal.

        1. Haha, yeah that’s the stuff. Go forth and spread your myopic paranoia.

        2. Cereal came out of my nose with the milk.

    2. “If you can’t tell, my visit to that thread yesterday has scarred me for life and made me understand why my lefty friends think conservatives are idiots.”

      It’s easy to find nutjobs of any political stripe, then generalize conclusions to anyone with a dissenting opinion. Such lazy and/or dishonest behaviour happens way too much.

      1. “Such lazy and/or dishonest behaviour happens way too much.”

        Especially on this site.

      2. Astropud, go actually look at DS’s site. What you described is exactly what commenters on her site (and DS herself) does to anyone who doesn’t tow her line to the tee. So, yes, my comment is an overgeneralization, but one that isn’t far from the mark. Maybe I shouldn’t make fun of spelling and grammar, but again, it’s not far from the mark. There’s not much that isn’t like what I wrote… Anyone who expressed any dissent was treated as anathema and addressed with a big “HELLOOOOOO” or “PUHLEEASE” by DS.

        I know many conservative sites that are not like that, but hers goes beyond anything I’ve seen. So call my generalization dishonest and lazy if you like, but H&R is nothing like the echo chamber over there. Here we disagree with each other, call each other names, and argue about everything.

  6. Untermensch, the ends justify the means

  7. “… did not know they were legally required to share the crime lab report.”

    I have heard many police officers and lawyers and judges say ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.

    1. Haha hell yeah, me too.

    2. did not know they were legally required to share the crime lab report.

      A transparent and obvious lie. If you could find a half dozen attorneys in the entire country who didn’t know that the prosecution is required to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense, I would be shocked.

      1. I doubt you can find someone that watches “Law & Order” that doesn’t know this. A blatent lie from the prosecutors trying to cover their asses. Or they are the most incompetant fucks that have ever walked the earth.

      2. That anyone could have gotten through law school without having been exposed to Brady v. Maryland is inconceivable.

    3. I have heard many police officers and lawyers and judges say ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.
      reply to this

      So they are still liable.

      Would it be murder to kill them?

  8. Prosecutors are judged by conviction rates.

    When faced with a situation where they can either destroy someone’s life to further their career, or let an innocent person go free, they of course choose to further their careers.

    What else would you expect from a lawyer?

    1. Prosecutors are judged by conviction rates.

      When faced with a situation where they can either destroy someone’s life to further their career, or let an innocent person go free, they of course choose to further their careers.

      What else would you expect from a lawyer?

      This begs the question.

      Where are the vigilantes? Vigilantes were successful in keeping Comedy Central and Yale University Press from publishing offensive cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. And yet, no one has killed Harry Connick Sr. for what he did.

      Are offensive cartoons of prophets much more important than justice?

  9. Counselor…!

    1. Robert DeNiro? Cape Fear? Anyone?

      1. I’ve seen the flick — pretty good one — but I didn’t get the reference. I remember the tattoos and the general creepiness though.

        1. I’d rather watch My cousin Vinnie.

          1. Haha. Two Utes.

            1. +1

  10. White people killing blacks goes largely unnoticed in this country, but when the tables are turned…OJ becomes the greatest mass murderer the world has ever known!
    Ever look at a list of all the countries that still employ the death penalty? Now that is some fine company with which we surround ourselves! “Hypocricy, brutality, the Elite: All of which are America’s dreams, all of which are America’s dreams, all of which are America’s dreams.” -RATM

    1. Ever look at a list of all the countries that still employ the death penalty? Now that is some fine company with which we surround ourselves!

      What, you don’t like Asians, including the Japanese?

      1. You bet! I love them long time.

  11. Why would that nice country singer fella want to put the Georgetown basketball coach to death? Did he screw up his bracket?

    1. You may or may not realize that the DA actually is the father of the singer/actor.

      1. Since when is Harry Connick Jr. a country singer?

    2. Too many missed spreads. Bitch needs to pay.

  12. one prosecutor told a former colleague (who kept this information to himself for five years) that he had deliberately withheld the blood evidence. But it’s not clear he knew that was illegal at the time of Thompson’s robbery trial, and testimony in Thompson’s civil case indicated that other prosecutors in the D.A.’s office, including Connick himself, did not know they were legally required to share the crime lab report. Thompson’s lawyers note that one prosecutor’s “misunderstanding” of the relevant Supreme Court ruling “was so fundamental that the district judge visibly registered surprise,” prompting him to change his testimony.

    Last I checked ignorance of the law is not a valid defense.

    Whether they knew or not, they SHOULD HAVE known. It was their fucking job. I don’t see how claims of “I didn’t know that I was supposed to turn over exculpatory evidence” mitigates the conduct in any way.

    Whether or not you had to, as a prosecutor your job is to prosecute the person who committed the crime, not to just prosecute anyone you can even when the evidence points to someone else.

    This is getting fucking ridiculous. Agents of the government, people with real power over the lives of others who have a responsibility to know the law, are held to much much lower standards than the average person.

    1. Whether or not you had to, as a prosecutor your job is to prosecute the person who committed the crime, not to just prosecute anyone you can even when the evidence points to someone else.

      That’s where you are wrong. The job of the prosecutor is to convict people. Convictions make people feel good because justice has been done. The more convictions the better the prosecutor. Superb conviction rates can be a springboard into politics.

      Guilt and innocence don’t matter. Just convictions.
      If the prosecutor lets an innocent person go, what does that say about they system? It means the police detained the wrong guy, that resources were expended on the wrong guy, and the guilty party is still out there.
      What would that do to our faith in the justice system, especially if those at the top actually admitted to making a mistake?
      That simply cannot happen.
      The image of infallibility is much more important than the life of an innocent man.

      /sarcasm

    2. This is getting fucking ridiculous. Agents of the government, people with real power over the lives of others who have a responsibility to know the law, are held to much much lower standards than the average person.

      Where is the mainstream media (NBC, CBS, ABC) on this?

  13. Picture needs invisible cheeseburger cation.

  14. The picture needs an “invisible cheeseburger” caption.

    Your retarded fucking spam filter thought my original version of this sentence was spam.

    1. I swear, if I get one more email for “1nvisible chzbrgers” from Nigeria I’m going to hurl.

  15. What’s the betting line that the D.A.’s office has never re-opened the investigation to look for the actual murderer?

  16. Harry Connick was an evil son of a bitch as our DA. This isn’t the only murder conviction under him, overturned for withholding evidence.

    And add to that, he had a habit of refusing charges against molester priests, deferring to the Archdiocese instead.

    I can’t wish anything but the worst for Connick. He was awful.

    1. Harry Connick was an evil son of a bitch as our DA. This isn’t the only murder conviction under him, overturned for withholding evidence.

      And add to that, he had a habit of refusing charges against molester priests, deferring to the Archdiocese instead.

      I can’t wish anything but the worst for Connick. He was awful.

      I wonder if anyone will kill him in retaliation.

      People in Islamic countries are willing to kill people to avenge the honor of our holy prophet, or the deflowering of their daughters. Why are not Americans willing to kill to correct an injustice?

  17. Prosecutors like that, who withhold evidence, should face a mandatory minimum of 20 years, and if a death penalty case, face the death penalty. They tried to murder this man, they should face the consequences.

  18. Sometimes I sound like I’m arguing, when I’m actually not. I just have a way of putting my posts stronger than intended.It’s easier to keep out of the conversation and not take the chance of being misunderstood.

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