He spent 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and came within weeks of execution. Yet the United States Supreme Court has thrown out a jury verdict awarding John Thompson US$14 million ($18 million) in compensation.
The court ruled by five to four that Thompson had not proved a pattern of misconduct in the New Orleans District-Attorney’s Office so was not entitled to compensation.
Thompson was first convicted in 1985 of a carjacking, a verdict then used by the District-Attorney’s Office to secure a conviction for the killing the year before of Raymond Liuzza.
In 1999 private detectives discovered a blood test carried out during the car-jacking case which showed Thompson could not have committed the crime. It led to a new trial, during which other new evidence was offered and Thompson was cleared in both cases. A jury later ordered the District-Attorney’s Office to pay him US$14 million.
But the conservative majority in the Supreme Court found nothing in the case persuaded them to reverse legal precedent protecting prosecutors from being sued for anything they do in the course of their work. The argument that Harry Connick, who resigned as District-Attorney in 2003, presided over an office that repeatedly hid exculpatory evidence did not impress the justices.
Nor apparently did Thompson’s tale of extraordinary woe.
Lawyers for Thompson, who spent 14 of his 18 years behind bars in virtual isolation on death row, insisted they had demonstrated “multiple constitutional violations by multiple prosecutors” in Connick’s office. They said: “If prosecutors’ offices cannot be held accountable under the facts of this case it is difficult to imagine when they would be accountable.”
Leading the liberal minority in the court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg accused the majority, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, of protecting a district-attorney’s office from the consequences of “flagrant” misconduct. But Thomas said the case amounted to a “single incident” where mistakes were made and did not prove “deliberate indifference” by Connick.