Supreme Court Erases Award for Exonerated Death Row Inmate

On March 29, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed (5-4) a judgment of $14 million against the District Attorney's Office of New Orleans for withholding evidence in the case of John Thompson.  Thompson had been convicted and sentenced to death but was later exonerated after the withheld evidence, casting serious doubt about his guilt, was revealed through the work of a private investigator. Thompson spent 18 years in prison including 14 years on death row, and faced imminent execution several times.  He sued the D.A.'s office for violation of his constitutional rights.  However, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, held that Thompson did not prove that the entire district attorney’s office was responsible for the individual prosecutors' negligence. "[T]he only issue before us is whether [D.A.] Connick, as the policymaker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train the attorneys under his authority," Thomas wrote.  The Court held that a district attorney’s office cannot be held responsible for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single violation of the standards requiring them to turn over to the defense any evidence that would cast doubts on the defendant’s guilt or sentence. (Brady v. Maryland).

Four Justices dissented.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that failure to train prosecutors amounted to deliberate indifference to the defendant’s rights.  "What happened here . . . was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish."  The withheld evidence showed that the main informant against Thompson in a prior case received a reward from the victim’s family, the eyewitness identification accounts did not match Thompson’s description, and a blood sample taken from the crime scene did not match Thompson’s blood type.

(Connick v. Thompson, No. 09-571 (March 29, 2011); Editorial, "Failure of Empathy and Justice," New York Times, March 31, 2011; D. Lithwick, "Cruel But Not Unusual," Slate.com, April 1, 2011).  See U.S. Supreme Court and Innocence.