A life ruined…and no one responsible?

In 1987, John Thompson was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery and sentenced to death. He spent 14 years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He did not commit either crime.

It was not until 1999 that investigators discovered that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, who had tried Thompson for both crimes, had failed to turn over to his defense attorneys evidence that would have proven Thompson’s innocence. Both convictions were thrown out by a judge and a 2003 retrial cleared him of all charges.

After his release, Thompson sued the Orleans Parish District Attorney who, at the time of his original convictions, was Harry Connick Sr. Thompson claims that Connick and his staff knowingly and willfully withheld evidence from his lawyers. Connick, on the other hand, says that the evidence was lost due to clerical errors.

Thompson was initially awarded $14 Million, but his legal victory was overturned by the United States Supreme Court on March 29, 2011. The Majority Opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, ruled that a District Attorney cannot be held responsible for the illegal actions of his or her prosecutors. Regardless of whether or not Connick and his staff deliberately withheld the evidence that would have originally proven Thompson’s innocence, the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case sets a dangerous and disturbing precedent. An innocent man spent 14 years in prison and was nearly executed. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling, no one can be held legally responsible for that.

Thompson’s suit hinged on the theory that Connick’s office had failed to adequately train its prosecution staff and at least one of the ethical violations that led to the evidence being lost was a direct result of a prosecutor being under-trained. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling specifically states that a District Attorney cannot be held liable for any illegal conduct that results from a prosecutor’s lack of training.

Thanks to this ruling, district attorneys can assign inexperienced, untrained prosecutors to major criminal cases where life and death literally hang in the balance, as it did in Thompson’s case.

Inexperienced prosecutors will likely make mistakes when handling witnesses or, in Connick’s case, with evidence that will ultimately result in an unfair trial.

The defendant was sent to prison for a crime he did not commit and nobody feared suffering legal consequences for that mistake. Courtesy of the Supreme Court, district attorneys and their prosecutors can no longer be held accountable for their mistakes.

Think about what this means for a moment. If a prosecutor makes a mistake because he or she hasn’t been properly trained and that mistake winds up sending an innocent person to prison for the rest of his or her lives, or to his or her execution, then the prosecutor can’t be punished. Neither can the district attorney overseeing the case. An innocent person could be locked up forever or even killed with no one held responsible.

If Connick and his staff did in fact withhold that evidence deliberately, that makes the ruling even more dangerous. Now prosecutors are free to withhold evidence at will and can escape any legal repercussions from their actions by claiming that they were under trained. If a DA or a prosecutor, heaven forbid, has a grudge against a defendant, he or she can manipulate the evidence to ensure the defendant’s conviction, then cry lack of proper training if his or her actions are exposed.

A man’s life has been ruined. Although innocent, he spent fourteen years behind bars and was very nearly executed. Thanks to the Supreme Court, no one will be held liable. Where is the justice in that?

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