Civil Liberties

Supreme Court Firms Up State Immunity From Wrongful Conviction Lawsuits


By a ideologically right-left, 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today (PDF) that a wrongly convicted Louisiana man—who at one point was just weeks away from execution—isn't permitted to sue the DA's office that for 14 years sat on the evidence proving his innocence.

Jacob Sullum wrote about Connick v. Thompson in March of last year. As Sullum pointed out, while it's clear that prosecutors knew about the evidence for years (a bloody piece of cloth), there are competing theories about whether they knew they had to turn the cloth over and willfully withheld it anyway, or if they simply didn't know they were obligated to turn it over. (As Sullum also noted, it's hard to decide which scenario is worse.) The latter seems rather unlikely, even though during the civil trial, Orelans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick and his assistants apparently couldn't articulate the Brady Rule, the law requiring the disclosure of such evidence. Of course, the former—the willful misconduct—is also much harder to prove.

In any case, the Court's ruling today, taken with past rulings, further illustrates how the old mantra that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" seems to apply to everyone except for actual members of law enforcement.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, found that the failure of Connick (fun side note: he's the father of crooner Harry Connick, Jr.) to train his assistants on their obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence isn't negligent enough to subject the government that employs him to liability. Connick and his assistants themselves (an office with a long history of misconduct) were already protected from any personal liability by absolute prosecutorial immunity, a concept the Supreme Court essentially invented from whole cloth.

Keith Findley, President of the Innocence Network, comments:

"Basically, what the Court is saying is that because they are lawyers, there was no reason for the District Attorney to believe that his prosecutors might need training to be sure they are fulfilling their constitutional obligations to disclose information that might be useful to their defense. This logic completely ignores the reality of what happened to John Thompson who was sentenced to death by prosecutors who repeatedly failed in their obligation to disclose exculpatory information. No other profession is shielded from this complete lack of accountability."

The ruling also negates a $14 million jury award to John Thompson, the man wrongly convicted. It also means that for his 18 years in prison, 14 of which he spent on death row, Thompson will now at most get $150,000, the maximum compensation for a wrongful conviction allowed under Louisiana law.

NEXT: "I do not want to arrest you or your wife"

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  1. Remember this next time somebody tells you “it’s great that the Court is swinging Right, they’ll stop the abusive government.”

  2. Thankfully I wasn’t in a good mood before I started reading H&R. Christ…

    1. I was. Now I have to find the cat.


  3. The same standard should be applied to all private actors in liability actions, and then we can see how much the Court likes that.

  4. Look, I know I’m just a simple corporate lawyer, but I could swear that there was a duty for prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence. That duty is so fundamental that I think prosecutors should have imputed knowledge of that duty, at least as far as government liability is concerned.

    I haven’t read the decision, but this doesn’t sound right to me on the surface.

    1. could they NOT know that and pass the bar? I mean, I know it’s Louisiana, but still.

      1. Doesn’t Louisiana use some variant of the Napoleonic code for their state law; and under the Napoleonic code, you are presumed guilty until proven innocent? I could swear I heard that somewhere.

        1. No, Louisiana does not have a presumption of guilt.

    2. The problem is that the case was about whether or not there was adequate training for Brady requirements. If the lawyers were already supposed to understand this, then that weakens the plaintiff’s case that there was inadequate training.

    3. And given that prosecutors and defense attorneys often trade jobs, you think someone in the office would have run across the concept once somewhere…

    4. It’s not malfeasance when the DA does it.

  5. He should appeal.

  6. So wait, as long as they didn’t know they had to turn over the evidence it was ok that they convicted and locked up a man they knew was innocent? Am I missing something?

    1. Am I missing something?

      Yes. The justice system is broken, and the weakness of circularly reasoned, completely subjective decisions based on the all-encompassing and singularly focused protection of the current group of insiders is glaringly obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense.

      The system exists to protect and expand the system, and nothing else.

  7. So, by this logic, a police officer is legally ok if they arrest someone on a fake charge as long as they didn’t know it wasn’t cool to do that?

    1. Ignorance of the law is a defense when it’s your job.

  8. *sigh* You know it’s a bad day when I’m going with the left-wing of the court.

  9. I haven’t read the decision, but this doesn’t sound right to me on the surface.

    It’s fine.

    It’ll make a terrible broadened precedent someday, because they all do, but the fault is that the ruled-on portion of Thompson’s lawyers’ case was…is there a Latin term for “really fucking stupid?”

    If you’re making a Supreme Court case that’s wholly reliant on the unproven moral-certainty obviousness of the need for in-office Brady “training,” and on nothing else at all, you’re going to fucking lose. So they did. And it’s a narrow ruling on that really fucking stupid idea.

    Thomas is, as usual, a machine. And they shoved garbage in it.

    1. Exactly right about Thomas. You can rely on him to interpret the law as it’s written, and per precedent the law in this case does not show liability on the part of the government for the failure of Connick to properly train his subordinates.

      It’s wrong and fucked up without a doubt, but he is a machine and will reliably decide that way every time.

      On the one hand you get decisions like this, on the other you get decisions like Gonzales Vs. Raich.

      If you’re looking for a judge to establish a new precedent or overturn an old one you’re not going to find it with Thomas.

      That being said, I would prefer that kind of judge over the “living, breathing document” apes that have recently been appointed simply because they will let the executive and the legislature shit all over the constitution as long as it’s “for our own good”.

      1. The only way there can be a silver lining to this is if it opens up the possibility that such negligent prosecutors can be considered for *personal liability* via a reexamination of the immunity statutes.

        1. Thomas does occasionally opine towards overturning precedents, but he’s always invariably writing a solo dissenting opinion.

      2. It’s shouldn’t be an either / or proposition. The point of the judiciary is, in part, to interpret the laws when there is subjectivity. In this instance, does the law anywhere authoritatively state that Connick doesn’t have to train his staff to a certain standard? If not, then it’s a matter wholly up to interpretation, and precedent be damned if the precedent is wrong (precidents get overturned all the time if they’re based on nonsense, like segregation).

      3. Yes, the majority went with the law and precedent in this case. Sure, it sucks, but hasn’t Congress had 30+ years to change it? Why do they always get a fucking pass on these things? I assume it’s not been changed because this is how they want it.

      4. If you’re looking for a judge to establish a new precedent or overturn an old one you’re not going to find it with Thomas.

        This case wasn’t about overturning Imbler – it was about attempting an end run around it.

        It won’t take a Court finding to change this very bad law – you just need all the lawyers in Congress (many being former prosecutors) to agree to change the relevant statute.

    2. >>It’ll make a terrible broadened precedent someday, because they all do, but the fault is that the ruled-on portion of Thompson’s lawyers’ case was…is there a Latin term for “really fucking stupid?”

      1. Irrumabissimens fatuus.

    3. To be fair, on many occasions points that would seem obvious to us [like “prosecutors should be liable for damages when they gain false convictions by withholding exculpatory evidence”] have to be argued on weak-sounding bases because all of the obvious lines of argument have already been shot down by quisling judges.

    4. Irummabissimens fatuus.

      1. misspelled that:

        Irrumabissimens fatuus.

        1. fuck! Also posted on the wrong leaf. I’ve suddenly become net-retarded or something.

          1. OTOH, this was a fucking awesome self-thread, yonemoto. Props…

            1. self-threads. It’s what I do best. If you doubt me, feel free to check the reason archives:


  10. Sort of puts that “being a dick about a basketball hoop” story into perspective.


    1. Yeah, the cunt in the goodie could have had the couple arrests on trumped up charges, lied to a jury to have them convicted, locked them up for years until a judge finally got around to watching the video and she wouldn’t have to worry about negative consequences.

      1. *hoodie – apparently not a Apple approved word.

  11. Look on the bright side: he got 18 years of free room and board. That’s got to be worth something.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent him a bill for it.

      1. Invoice for Accommadations in the Louisiana State Prison:

        6,575 days ($36.97 daily rate)

        Total: $ 243,077.75

        Payment Recieved: $ 150,000 (Wrongful Conviction Credit)

        Outstanding Balance: $ 93,077.75

        Please remit total outstanding balance to Louisiana Department of Corrections on or before April 30, 2011 or we’ll thow you back in prison.

  12. I wonder how this goes for engineers working for the government. So when a bridge collapses, we can’t really fault the city engineering dept., even if one of city engineers already knew for years said bridge was unsafe?

    1. That’s next; count on it.

    2. But they’re our ROADZZZZ! You start holding government engineers accountable for shitty roads, and the next thing you know, we’re just like SOMALIA!!!

      1. Xeer is preferable to the shit we got.

    3. But the engineers themselves don’t enjoy absolute immunity against claims of malpractice — that’s a perk only persecutors get.

  13. Can we perhaps take as a silver lining the fact that Sotomayor voted with the dissent? Is this indicative of her shying away from what we all assumed would be a reflexive support for law enforcement, or do you think her vote was political / motivated by the certainty of it passing anyway / etc.? Also, way to go Ginsburg and what are you thinking Thomas. Why can’t they just be consistent?

    1. Thomas is consistent. Read the opinion.

      1. Consistent with what we believe, as in consistent with a political philosophy of liberty. My point is that they all seem to get it right part of the time and wrong most others – why can’t they just be consistently right? Wishful thinking obviously. I was much more interested in the first part of what I posted anyway – any input there?

        1. I take no heart from the Sotomayer ruling. It just means that she is perfectly willing to bend law and precedent to meet her desired goal.

          1. If you want to see what I mean by the above, take a look at the Citizens United ruling. The dissenting justices (including Sotomayer) were perfectly happy to stomp on first amendment rights simply because they liked the law’s goal. Their reasoning amounts to “Hey, there’s no proof that it’s really that bad, and anyway, let’s give censorship a chance and see what happens. Might work out fine.” Seriously. It’s that bad. Read the opinion and you’ll see.

            1. Also, that should obviously be “Sotomayor.” Oops.

            2. Yeah I certainly have read Citizens United, and I found Scalia’s concurrence to be profound and deep and frankly awesome. I’m not doubting that in general Sotomayor sucks, but I’m just wondering – and maybe Radley will comment on this at some point – if Sotomayor’s vote against law enforcement is indicative of her softening on the issue. One of the biggest libertarian fears of her coming in was the presumption that she would offer knee-jerk support to cops and prosecutors and “expert witnesses” and such, but perhaps (hopefully) this vote may indicate otherwise. Or, of course it might not.

  14. Speaking of injustices, why does Spitzer now have his own show?

    (to be continued)

  16. They’d want to keep me inside. Fucking me like this would be a (justifiably) murderable offense.


  18. Radley, when the FUCK are you leaving for Huff Po? My nuts CANNOT take any more of this!!!

    I do not read HP, so it would greatly help my nadular comfort level if you’d hurry up and leave. FUCK!!

    1. Quit pretending you’ve got nuts.

  19. This is kind of off topic, but kind of on, since its about wrongful imprisonment. This is something about which I have been wondering for a while. Let us suppose that you were wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death. As your execution approaches, you make an escape attempt which results in the death of a guard. Since we’re making a lot of assumptions lets assume that right at that instant, somebody honest got hold of the evidence that proves that you were innocent and thus your conviction on the original murder charge was overturned. Would you then be legally responsible for the death of the guard? I don’t know the fine points of the law, but that would be self-defense in my book.

    1. sounds like a movie script idea.

  20. The Declaration of Independence reminds us that there are standards outside and above the teachings of governments, standards superior even to what a government might at any moment believe or choose. The right of revolution implies, that is, the supremacy of reason in human affairs.

  21. Gee whiz, I wonder what the punishment would be for killing Right/Wrong-wing conservative Supreme Court Justices, who are destroying the integrity of this country??????

  22. Don’t be an idiot.

    Thinking, how does it work? Should they be punished for Citizens as well?

  23. Radley, I’m still kinda confused by this. Obviously I’m sympathetic to the guy who was wrongly imprisoned and his loss of $14M. But the decision seems to turn on the very narrow point that he alleges that a lack of training was the cause, without citing any incidents other than his own to back it up. Thomas appears to rule that, strictly, you need to show a pattern of stupidity in order to prove training was the cause, and the respondent did not choose to do that.

    I don’t read this as a broad show of support for law enforcement, just a rejection of the respondent’s strategy.

  24. This is what we call the balance of justice!!!! no one is held accountalbe anymore! they would do a better jod if they where!!!!

  25. hamilton, please you need all the facts to make you’re decision.

  26. When it comes to the issues of protecting defendants’ rights or keeping innocent people out of prison, does it really make a difference whether or not district attorneys or sheriffs are elected or appointed?

  27. osecutors might need training to be sure they are fulfilling their constitutional obligations to

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