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An alarming Supreme Court ruling against an innocent man

Apr 05, 2011

by Lisa Rea

It is hard to fathom the actions of the Supreme Court at times. This ruling is one of those times. Read the case of John Thompson, a wrongfully convicted man in New Orleans who spent 14 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

I have written of a case like this previously (i.e. exoneree Greg Wilhoit on Oklahoma's death row) but this case has a different twist. The exoneree was seeking compensation from the District Attorney for the years he spent on death row because a prosecutor who worked for his office hid evidence that would have freed him---a blood test among other things. The Supreme Court ruling (5-4) written by Justice Clarence Thomas states that while there was "misconduct" by the prosecutor (Ginsburg points out there were actually four prosecutors involved), that "did not prove deliberate indifference" by the District Attorney.

The Court does not seem to deny that this grave misconduct happened.  But somehow the attorneys for Thompson had to prove that the hiding of the evidence showed  "deliberate indifference " by the district attorney's office, by showing, for example that this was no mere single incident but instead was a pattern of misconduct. When Thompson was exonerated he was days away from execution. Any reasonable person would have to conclude that if evidence had been withheld, especially very hard evidence like a blood test, then the actions of the prosecutors were worse than "deliberate indifference"; they were criminal.

The Supreme Court in the United States is the court of last resort--the last stop. Your pleas can go no further.  That is what is so disturbing about this ruling.  As you read the LA TIMES story you learn a few additional facts about this case.  Not only did the prosecution hide a blood test which would have proven Thompson's innocence they also hid eye witness evidence from the defense that also would have proven his innocence.  In addition, Thompson's attorneys provided evidence of other similar cases in New Orleans where key evidence was hidden from defese attorneys. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said in her dissent that the court was shielding a city and its prosecutors for "flagrant" misconduct that nearly cost a man his life.

These are serious charges against the New Orleans's district attorney's office. The evidence that was brought forth by Thompson's lawyers before this court showed that at least four prosecutors  knew of the hidden blood test.  Apparently, those prosecutors did nothing to right this wrong. I do not know what the attorneys representing Thompson needed to do to prove their case. But you can believe that this was about money and power. 

When a wrongful conviction occurs whom do you hold accountable? That 's a question that must be asked if you seek to apply restorative justice to this case. It's an important question and it is why this case went all the way to the Supreme Court.  Thompson was seeking compensation for the 14 wasted and fearful years on death row. Thompson was attempting to hold the district attorney's office accountable. The Supreme Court's ruling concluded that the prosecutors' boss is not responsible for this travesty of justice.

According to the Innocence Project as of 2011 there have been 261 exonerations in the U.S.  That number is approximate since the Innocent Project was formed in 1992.  Before that date few organizations worked on this issue (except one that I am aware of which is the Centurion Ministries).  In 2007 there were 200 innocent men exonerated based on DNA evidence. Of that 200 the Innocence Project states that approximately 45 % have received some compensation for the years in prison or death row with amounts ranging from $25,000 to $12.12 million. (source: Christian Science Monitor) This compensation usually comes by way of standardized compensation statutes on a state by state basis. Some states have laws determining the rate of compensation and some don't. That, too, is changing but not without a fight. 

What is alarming with this Supreme Court ruling against an innocent man is that the ruling seems to reflect the same attitude as the New Orleans's District Attorney's office. It just apparently doesn't care whether John Thompson was falsely convicted and almost executed. Ultimately, the question of who to hold liable is unanswered.

I do a lot of work on restorative justice issues online through blogs like RJONLINE and other social networking sites. I said when this ruling came down that this does not mean it is over.  It might be over today for this innocent man, John Thompson, but cases like this will be back.  Someone is to blame for wrongful convictions. Sometimes errors are made, all too often due to misidentification of eye witnesses, but what we see here is a deliberate case of misconduct. Justice Thomas was looking for a pattern of wrong doing instead of clear evidence of wrong doing in this singular case. However, Justice Ginsburg is right. Can flagrant misconduct that nearly cost a man his life be ignored?

What we should care about ---and I think it is a moral imperative-- is how to make things right after wrongful convictions and attempt to pay back the innocent person. 

Some ask how can you pay back someone for lost years in prison or death row? It's not easy but at the very least our justice system should attempt to do so. The Supreme Court failed to do just that in this ruling. This problem is far from over.

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Susan Chandler
Susan Chandler says:
Apr 05, 2011 09:06 AM

Prosecutors were given absolute immunity from prosecution for deliberate misconduct by US Supreme Court in Imbler v Pachtman (1976); D.A.'s were given absolute immunity in Van de Kamp v Goldstein the following year. The US Supreme Court ruled that it was the responsibility of the Bar to punish prosecutorial and supervisory misconduct, and the Bar simply refuses to do so. <br /> <br />As the basis of the Bar's federal income tax exemption is equal protection of its members and the public, I have formally asked the IRS Oversight Board to retroactively revoke the Bar's tax exemptions. After being taxed fully on their millions in incomes, the Bar just may begin to adhere to the US Supreme Court's ruling. <br /> <br />Better still, Congress may be forced by surrounding publicity to override case law immunities, ending the deadly folly of decades of lawfully unequal justice.

Chris Chevalier
Chris Chevalier says:
Apr 05, 2011 10:56 AM

This story is a tragedy, like thousands of other men and women wrongly accusd and in prison. It is a true mis carriage of justice. I wonder if the American Justice system has the courage to actually be part of RJ in cases like this. I believe citizens aren't given a fair and just deal and basically without action groups like Innocence Project and Prison Fellowship and many others people would suffer even more.

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Apr 07, 2011 01:57 AM

Thanks for your comments. I think restorative justice principles and policies must be applied here. In cases like these when an innocent man was convicted and almost put to death by the state it seems as if there would be justice, through at least fair compensation, for him through our justice system. That would apply as well to Mr. Greg Wilhoit in Oklahoma. These are just two of many existing cases in the U.S. <br /> <br />Restorative justice as applied would seek to right the wrong but also it would address the fact that the real offender was not caught at the time Mr. Thompson was convicted and sentenced. Another miscarriage of justice. <br /> <br />Each of us needs to do our part to stand up for justice and fairness in our justice systems.

Brian Steels
Brian Steels says:
Apr 06, 2011 02:08 AM

This case raises so many questions about the institution of the courts themselves and their not-so-independent thinking when it comes to prosecuting the systemic injustices being carried out by the state. This is criminal in the extreme and was almost institutional murder. Please do not let this case rest, for until such action is taken to put things right. It was not only misconduct, it was an action that was death-making. What has changed since this ruling, what safeguards have been put in place to stop it from happening again, and has there been an external investigation by authorities to stop this culture within the prosecution's office?

Ron Keine
Ron Keine says:
Apr 07, 2011 01:57 AM

<br />I recently spent a week end in Chicago, with other death row exonorees from all over the U.S. We were in town for our semi-annual Witness To Innocence &quot; gathering &quot; of death row exonorees. One of the Highlights of the event was talking with John Thompson about his upcoming case in front of the United States Supreme Court. We were ecstatic. John, one of our own exonorees has a chance to make history by winning a court case against the very people who fraudulently put him on death row. We death row exonorees who belong to Witness To Innocence, were patiently waiting for the outcome of John’s case as the ruling would effect all of us. Keeping in mind the casual arrogance of the majority of the bench in that court and it’s blatant disregard for human rights. We still had a glimmer hope. <br />1. There are 138 of us now. That means 138 people who were convicted by a jury of our peers, found guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, and sentenced to death. We sat on death row for many years before we were discovered to be innocent. Common among the many of these cases which I have read is the high frequency of Prosecutorial Misconduct. Only a hand full of us have ever received an apology from the offending justice system much less any type of compensation. It is rare indeed when a prosecutor has ever been reprimanded for his criminal actions in these cases. They have a complete veil of immunity granted to them by the Supreme court. Again the Court has shown its complete lack of parity by shooting down John Thompson’s case. In Completely ignoring the evidence they made a decision that can only mean that as long as you are a prosecutor you may break the laws any time you want and we will protect you. People who are victims of these corrupt prosecutors have no legal standing in the highest court of the land. <br />The facts are that these prosecutors have again and again conspired to break the law and deprive an innocent citizen of their civil rights. In many cases they purposely send innocent people to their death. Just who are the real criminals in court rooms today. To purposely lie, manufacture evidence and hide exculpatory evidence is in itself punishable under RICO which is designed to curtail ongoing criminal enterprises. What about the Geneva convention. Did we not sign that document and pledge to uphold those principles? Could we maybe go into world court and sue? Didn’t the trials at Neurenburg teach us that there are consequenses for the taking of innocent human lives? I pray that some day that these corrupt prosecutors are called on to answer for their autrocities. I forgave the Prosecutor who put me on death row while knowing for a fact that I was innocent. Now I have to see if there is room left in my heart for the Supreme Court justices who tell him <br />&quot;Go ahead and kill all the innocents you want to , We've got your back&quot; <br />----------------------------------------------- <br />Personnel changes on the court, coupled with “regrettable judicial activism,” had created a system of capital punishment <br />that is shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria. <br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />(Retired Supreme court Justice John Paul Stevens) <br />

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Apr 12, 2011 07:55 PM

Thank you, Ron Keine for your comments. It means so much. Since you were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned (on death row) for a crime you did not commmit your input here speaks volumes. <br /> <br />I hope that those of us who advocate for restorative justice also will &quot;have your back&quot; and stand up for your rights. What is chilling is to consider how many men and women might still be imprisoned for crimes they never committed. These wrongs must be made right. <br /> <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

Bill Pelke
Bill Pelke says:
Apr 13, 2011 04:16 AM

Deliberate indifference,give me a break. <br /> <br />You are right Lisa Rea when you say this is Not Restorative Justice, And that it is about power and money. <br /> <br />Justice Ginsburg called it a &quot;flagrant&quot; misconduct that nearly cost a man his life. <br /> <br />AN INNOCENT MAN at that. <br /> <br />Why do we have a problem in our society of restoration? Well look at the lead of our court of last resorts. <br /> <br />Thank you Justice Ginsburg for standing up for what is right and proper. For her it is not about money and power. <br /> <br />

George White
George White says:
Apr 16, 2011 08:25 PM

Like my friend Ron Keine, I too am an exoneree. I am not numbered among the 138 because although I was falsely accused, wrongfully convicted at a trial in which the state sought the Death Penalty, and ultimately exonerated, I was lucky (sarcasm intended). I received a sentence of life. I am numbered among the untold thousands of the &quot;other&quot; innocents exonerated. The compounded tragedy in all of these cases is that the actual offender is rarely if ever caught. In my circumstance the victim was my wife, Charlene. Although the case was officially reopened following my exoneration, her killer has never been caught. I and my loved ones know that unanswered prayer. <br />It is well documented and definitively established that exculpatory evidence was hidden from us in various state agencies for more than seven years. <br />That evidence had never been turned over to us and the state never made us aware of it. Did it reach the threshold of prosecutorial misconduct? Yes. Could we ever prove the standard &quot;deliberate indifference?&quot; If reasonable common sense was the standard used. Yes. However.....As that 5 to 4 decision ain't about doing what's right. <br />&quot;Accountability and Responsibility&quot; although a rallying cry for applying punishment to the &quot;offenders&quot;, can only be attained and restorative justice made a part of the solution when everyone, offenders, Judges, Prosecutors, et al can no longer be allowed to avoid and evade responsibility and thus accountability for their own actions especially those that make a mockery of any concept of justice. Absolute immunity for judges, the prosecution and de facto for all law enforcement is why I received no compensation from the state of Alabama. This recent Supreme Court decision is a continuation of a travesty. Bless our Hearts. We must continue to cry out and fight for a better solution. The promise of justice should not become merely empty, faded words on crumbling paper. I for one will continue to speak out even if no one else is listening. <br />&nbsp;

sylvester says:
May 10, 2011 08:51 PM

I disagree with anyone who thinks the Supreme Court is the Highest Court in the Land. The Highest court is the court of public opinion. Any justice who held the position of prosecutor should have reclused themselves, they did not. By not reclusing themselves they violated ethical conduct and therefore should be subject to removal for cause. Correct me if I am wrong but they are subjective to impeachment. I suggest calling your United States Senators and Congressmen and ask them to investigate how many judges were former prosecutors and the judges who had a conflict of interest and failed to recluse themselves. Let us ask they be Inpeached. If the Senators and Congressmen refuse to act let us pass petitions and remove them as well. Quoting Franklin &quot;We can hang together or surely we will hang alone.&quot;

Taeho Chung
Taeho Chung says:
Jun 13, 2012 10:35 AM

I was watching a video of Barry Scheck being interviewed. He said that when a plane crashes you have NTSB, FAA and other agencies investigating what went wrong, mechanical failure, pilot negligence etc. When a wrongful conviction occurs there needs to be oversight, a grand jury of sorts to flush out what really happened. Prosecutor's need immunity to a large extent to do their jobs, but there shouldn't be any immunity from abusing the immunity they have.

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