"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

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Washington: Court seems skeptical on $14 million judgment

By Jesse J. Holland

The Associated Press

The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed skeptical of a $14 million judgment given to a former death row inmate who accused New Orleans prosecutors of withholding evidence to help convict him of murder.

John Thompson, who at one point was only weeks away from being executed, successfully sued the district attorney's office in New Orleans, arguing that former District Attorney Harry Connick showed deliberate indifference by not providing adequate training for assistant district attorneys.

Prosecutors normally have immunity for their actions while working, but Thompson convinced a jury that the district attorney's office had not trained its lawyers sufficiently on how to handle evidence. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was split evenly on appeal, which upheld the lower court verdict.

"They all knew what not to produce. What they didn't know was what to produce," Thompson's lawyer J. Gordon Cooney said.

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14 Years on Death Row. $14 Million in Damages?

By James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

Mother Jones

The model electric chair sitting on the desk of the New Orleans prosecutor Jim Williams seemed like a classic piece of Southern Gothic. But for John Thompson, it was all too real. "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."

Thompson spent 14 years on death row—until, with his appeals exhausted and execution just weeks away, his lawyers discovered evidence that they say the prosecution had deliberately hidden. Based on the new evidence, he was granted a retrial and exonerated. So was another of the men in the pictures. Of the remaining three, one was granted a new trial, while two others had their sentences commuted to life in prison.

To many criminal justice advocates, the prosecutor's morbid desk ornament has become an emblem of the 28-year reign of Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., the father of the singer and a Louisiana icon—and crooner—in his own right. (Kennedy assassination buffs also know Connick as the man who attempted to suppress the files from his predecessor Jim Garrison's investigation, immortalized in Oliver Stone's JFK). 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.

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Supreme Court: Deliberative Indifference

By John Hollway

The Huffington Post

On October 6, 2010, the United States Supreme Court will hear the case of Thompson v. Connick, a civil lawsuit brought against the New Orleans DA's Office by John Thompson, who spent 18 years in Louisiana prison (14 of them on Death Row) for a murder and an unrelated carjacking that he did not commit. On the surface, the case is about whether or not Thompson is entitled to the $14 million award he got from a New Orleans federal court jury, which found that then-DA Harry Connick, Sr. (yes, the father of that Harry Connick) had shown "deliberate indifference" to educate his prosecutors about what evidence they had to share with defense lawyers, and further found that because of Connick's policies -- or lack thereof -- John Thompson lost 18 years of his life.

Presumably, we hold elected officials accountable for their actions when they come up for re-election. But Thompson v. Connick really asks another question: when should we be able to hold our government responsible for the actions of elected officials?

The Supreme Court has said that municipalities can be held liable when the key policymaker in the office -- in this case, Connick -- fails to train his staff about how to properly do their job, and a predictable and direct injury results. (One example: a police chief who fails to train his officers about when and when not to use deadly force.) Orleans Parish is seeking absolute immunity from such prosecution.

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