The Training Myth and Connick v. Johnson

The U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating on the issue of whether a District Attorney’s office can be held liable when individual prosecutors commit serious misconduct, on the grounds that the government breached its duty to train its prosecutors and ensure their competence. The case is Connick v. Thompson, and it began when it was discovered that a New Orleans man had been sent to Death Row for 18 years for a crime he hadn’t committed. John Thompson was innocent, and a lab report proving that the blood found at the crime scene belonged to someone else would have proven it. Prosecutors withheld the evidence from the defense attorneys.

When Thompson was freed he was understandably angry, but the options for redress when the criminal justice system ruins your life are severely and unjustly limited. In 1976, the Supreme Court decided in Imbler v. Pachtman that prosecutors have absolute immunity from lawsuits, even when there is genuine, malicious and illegal conduct. The Court acknowledged that its ruling “does leave the genuinely wronged defendant without civil redress against a prosecutor whose malicious or dishonest action deprives him of liberty,” but declared the alternative was worse: making prosecutors timid and fearful of making a mistake that could leave them penniless. The Court suggested that professional discipline would be enough to keep prosecutors honest, but that hasn’t been the case: a USA Today study found that even in egregious cases of prosecutorial misconduct, attorneys who put innocent people in jail almost never had to endure any punishment at all. Thompson sued the District Attorney’s Office on a theory of negligent training, and won 14 million dollars from a sympathetic jury. Now the Supreme Court is deciding whether such suit can stand in light of the ruling in Pachtman.

It should, but the theory behind the lawsuit is a myth, and I suspect that everyone knows it. Training wouldn’t have changed what happened to John Thompson. The oral argument revolved around the Brady v. Maryland requirements that make it mandatory for prosecutors to turn all exculpatory evidence over to the defense in a timely fashion. What additional training on Brady would have prevented the miscarriage of justice? The answer, of course, is none. The prosecutors knew about Brady. It is taught in the first year of law school; they talk about it on every “Law and Order” episode. This wasn’t a training problem, it was an ethics deficit problem. The man was innocent; the evidence proved it; the prosecutors, who are supposed to seek justice, not convictions, hid the evidence in order to frame John Thompson and close a case. If a D.A.’s office has to train its prosecutors to understand that this kind of conduct is wrong, then it needs to find new and better prosecutors. “All right class: now we’re going to explain why we shouldn’t ever, ever hide evidence to send innocent people to their death while the real criminals go free!”

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Thompson, all the prosecutor’s offices will just start requiring Prosecutor 101 training seminars. It won’t make prosecutors better, it won’t teach them anything  about Brady they don’t already know, and it certainly won’t make them more ethical. It will just help avoid liability the next time a crooked Assistant District Attorney destroys someone’s life to get a cheap conviction.

What should be done? Here are my suggestion:

  • Disbar prosecutors who intentionally hide evidence. Permanently.
  • Make it a crime for a prosecutor to send defendants to jail knowing of evidence that proves them innocent. If convicted, make the ex-prosecutor’s mandatory sentence the time served by the prosecutor’s victim before the truth was discovered.
  • Make states fairly compensate, without lawsuits, every citizen it jails unjustly, whether or not misconduct was the reason. Make the scale steep: one million dollars a year for years one through  five, two million dollars a year for the next ten years, three million for every year after that. Double the penalty for every year on Death Row. Let’s see; Louisiana would owe Thompson 48 million dollars. That’s fair. And I guarantee, with penalties like that, District Attorney’s Offices would make sure its hires were as honest as Abe Lincoln.

I will keep my fingers crossed that John Thompson receives his damages. But the theory that will win them, if it does, is a myth. It was rotten ethics, not poor training, that cost him 18 years of his life.

6 thoughts on “The Training Myth and Connick v. Johnson

    • I think a prosecutor whose intentional act sends a man he knows is innocent (or substantially believes is innocent) to his death has committed murder, and should be tried accordingly.

  1. Very nice post. I can’t see where training alone will have any substantial impact. Consequences are the only thing that might and I like what you suggested.

    Business is not always a good analogy for government but in this case one may work. I see the Federal, State and County criminal systems as a franchise of the constitution. Successful franchises are built on adherence to an ideal through training, monitoring and consumer feedback. Solid, hands-on management is an imperative. There are some good lessons here.

  2. Excellent analysis; I agree wholeheartedly. Going to prison for a crime I didn’t commit is right up there with being buried alive; a horrible fate.

  3. One of the big problems with this idea is that there isn’t enough money in the world to do it. With the recent cases here, the resulting penalty would be ~10 times the current state budget. I am afraid that what would happen is that the DA’s offices would just make sure they cover up the frame-up better and the courts would make it more difficult to bring such a charge and require a very high standard of evidence to prove the INTENTIONAL false prosecution.

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