Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Role of Plea Bargaining in the Recent Thompson Supreme Court Decision Regarding Prosecutorial Misconduct

Last week, in a sharply divided 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a $14 million jury award to John Thompson, a former death row inmate who spent 18 years in prison and was eventually freed after serious prosecutorial misconduct came to light. According to the New York Times:

The former inmate, John Thompson, had sued Harry F. Connick, a former district attorney in New Orleans, saying his office had not trained prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence. Prosecutors in the office had failed to give Mr. Thompson’s lawyers a report showing that blood at a crime scene was not his.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that only a pattern of misconduct would warrant holding Mr. Connick accountable for what happened on his watch.

Mr. Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them on death row. “I was delivered an execution warrant in my cell seven times,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “I was only weeks from being executed when my lawyers got the killing stopped.”

The blood evidence would have proved Mr. Thompson innocent of a 1984 armed robbery. Soon after he was convicted on that charge, prosecutors tried him for an unrelated murder. After the failure to turn over the blood evidence came to light in 1999, prosecutors dismissed the armed robbery charges. A state appeals court later reversed the murder conviction, reasoning that Mr. Thompson’s armed robbery conviction had dissuaded him from testifying in his own defense in the murder case. In 2003, Mr. Thompson was retried for the murder and found not guilty.

NPR has further details regarding the case and adds some significant information regarding the role of plea bargaining.

In December of 1984, Raymond Liuzza Jr., the son of a prominent New Orleans business executive, was shot to death in front of his home. Police, acting on a tip, picked up two men, Kevin Freeman and John Thompson.

Thompson denied knowing anything about the shooting, but Freeman, in exchange for a one-year prison sentence, agreed to testify that he saw Thompson commit the crime.

Prosecutors wanted to seek the death penalty, but Thompson had no record of violent felonies. Then, a citizen saw his photo in the newspaper and implicated him in an attempted carjacking — and prosecutors saw a way to solve their problem. John Hollway, who wrote a book about the case, said the solution was to try the carjacking case first.

A conviction in the carjacking case would yield additional benefits in the subsequent murder trial, Hollway observes. It would discredit Thompson if he took the stand in his own defense at the murder trial, so he didn't. And the carjacking would be used against him during the punishment phase of the murder trial.

It all worked like a charm. Thompson was convicted of both crimes and sentenced to death for murder...

[After it was discovered that prosecutors had hidden exculpatory evidence establishing Thompson's innocence, the two earlier convictions were overturned.] All of this would eventually lead to... a new trial on the murder charge. At that trial, yet more evidence would be uncovered and presented to the jury.

Previously undisclosed police reports showed witnesses at the crime scene had described the shooter as 6 feet tall with close-cropped hair. Thompson was 5-feet, 8-inches tall with a huge Afro. The description, in fact, fit not Thompson, but Freeman, the man who had made the deal to testify against Thompson.

In all, there would be 10 pieces of exculpatory evidence that prosecutors failed to turn over to the defense at the first murder trial. At the second trial, a jury acquitted Thompson after just 35 minutes of deliberation.

The underlying facts leading to the wrongful conviction of Thompson are striking similar to those described in John Grisham's non-fiction account of the wrongful conviction of Ron Williamson in The Innocent Man and once again bring into question the corrupting influence of plea bargaining in our criminal justice system. Listen to the NPR news report, including interviews with Thompson, here.

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