If today you saw people walking around, distracted, shaking their heads, perhaps they’d read Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision. In a 5-4 judgment that split along political lines, the Court overturned a multi-million dollar judgment awarded to John Thompson, an innocent man who came within weeks of dying by execution. That Thompson was innocent and the New Orleans District Attorney’s prosecutors hid evidence (a blood test) ruling him out as a suspect were not in dispute. The ruling hinged upon something else: did the district attorney and his employees engage in behavior that constituted a pattern of “deliberate indifference”? Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the four Conservatives and one centrist, said “No.” Justice Antonin Scalia added his opinion:
. . the misconduct in the case was the work of a single “miscreant prosecutor,” Gerry Deegan, who suppressed evidence “he believed to be exculpatory, in an effort to railroad Thompson.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg strongly dissented:
She said the actions of prosecutors under the control of [District Attorney] Connick, who left office in 2003 and is the father of the famous singer of the same name, “dishonored” the obligation to turn over evidence favorable to the accused established in Brady v. Maryland nearly 50 years ago.
. . “no fewer than five prosecutors” were complicit in a violation of Mr. Thompson’s constitutional rights. “They kept from him, year upon year, evidence vital to his defense.”
I’m no legal scholar, and I don’t know what constitutes “deliberate indifference.” But there’s certainly a pattern of defendants getting convicted by Connick’s prosecutors, getting sent to death row, and then later getting their death sentences overturned.
Fully a quarter of the men sentenced to death during Connick’s tenure (he retired in 2003) have had their convictions overturned—each time because of evidence that cast doubt on their guilt, but was hidden from the defense by prosecutors.
Connick’s people were fairly glib about getting defendants sentenced to death. One prosecutor had a model electric chair on his desk.
“Seated” in the electric chair were photographs of five African American men that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office had proudly sent to death row. Thompson’s picture was dead center. The meaning was pretty clear, he recalls: “They were trying to kill me.”
They nearly succeeded.