Unethical Quote of the Week: Wrongly Imprisoned Victim John Thompson

“I don’t think training would have had anything to do with nothing really, to be honest with you, because you could have trained them and they would still do it. You need to punish them for doing it, then they won’t do it.”

John Thompson, who was wrongly and illegally convicted of murder in Louisiana and spent 14 years on death row because prosecutors withheld exculpatory blood evidence from his lawyers and his trial. His civil suit against the prosecutor’s office, run by Harry Connick, Sr. (yes, the singer’s father) for millions in punitive damages, on the theory that the prosecutors who framed him were inadequately trained, was overturned last week by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This statement apparently was made by Thompson last October, when the Supreme Court took the case, and I missed it. It surfaced again this morning in a Washington Post editorial calling for harsher punishment for prosecutors who violate the rights of accused suspects and send innocent people to prison or execution. The Post has never been more right, and the $14 million originally awarded to Thompson by an appalled jury for his ordeal is still inadequate compensation for the 18 years he spent behind bars because of a prosecutor’s dishonesty.

But the theory used to get Thompson his money—that the tragedy would have been prevented if Connick’s office hadn’t been negligent in training its lawyers in prosecutorial ethics—was a sham, and deserved to be rejected by the Court, no matter how much Thompson deserved the money, or indeed, ten time the money.

Ethics Alarms had a post about Thompson, the Supreme Court case, and the need for a formula to fairly compensate victims of evil prosecutors ( I think the term is appropriate here) last year. I’m on Thompson’s side. His quote, however, is outrageous. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States using an argument that he didn’t believe himself. His lawyers, with the consent and understanding of their client, presented a sham argument to the U.S. Supreme Court, taking the place on the Court’s docket of one of hundreds of cases that had to be rejected to accept his.

I understand that Thompson, who is no Rhodes scholar, would be likely to take the advice of his lawyers regarding appeals, and he was defending his jury award against the appeal by the prosecutor’s office. Still, the fact is that according to his own words, he didn’t believe the theory he was presenting to the Court, and yet he allowed his lawyers to present it.

Meanwhile, were his lawyers in violation of their professional ethics Rule 3.1, which prohibits “frivolous” causes of action? I think it’s a close call, though the argument is harder to make after four Supreme Court justices voted for it. (You can read the opinion here.) This was not the finest moment of the Court’s so-called liberal wing, and bolsters the usually unfair accusation by conservatives that liberal justices just decide how they would like the case to come out and the law be damned. “I would uphold the jury’s verdict awarding damages to Thompson for the gross, deliberately indifferent and long-continuing violation of his fair trial right,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, adding that she was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Yes, but the violation of his fair trial right had nothing to do with inadequate training .

“Ample evidence presented at the civil rights trial demonstrated that Connick’s deliberately indifferent attitude created a tinderbox in which Brady violations were nigh inevitable,” Justice Ginsberg wrote.

Yes, but that is ethical culture, not training. The theory of Thompson’s lawsuit was negligence in not providing adequate training to prosecutors. Justice Thomas had it exactly right:whether additional training is provided by a prosecutor’s office or not, “A district attorney is entitled to rely on prosecutors’ professional training and ethical obligations.” Isn’t this obvious? If a prosecutor feels that he has to hold training sessions for his staff that begin, “Now remember, we never frame innocent people for murder and defy legal requirements that we share evidence with the defense! That is very bad. Now let me hear you repeat it back to me… all together now…!” it is negligent not to fire the whole batch and hire some ethical prosecutors.

I think Thompson deserves damages galore; our justice system ruined his life. Nonetheless, nobody should take a case to the Supreme Court based on a theory he doesn’t believe himself.

3 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Week: Wrongly Imprisoned Victim John Thompson

  1. Weren’t multiple theories presented to the supremes? I thought “the bad actions on their own caused denial of rights” and “there was deliberate indifference in part based on training” arguments were both presented. The first argument was mostly ignored or rejected as enough to cause a remedy. (Unjustly, in my opinion.) The second argument was agreed to by all.

    The difference was that the “liberal bloc” believed this standard was reached, while the preponderance of justices determined it was not.

    I don’t see training as being the main issue. The main issue was a willful disregard of constitutional rights, partially evidenced by the lack of training/incorrect training.

    Caveat: I didn’t read the opinions and submitted briefs thoroughly or listen to the oral arguments. This is my secondhand understanding of the case. Is your understanding firsthand, or secondhand?

    • No. My fault…I should have linked to the opinion..I fixed it.

      The Opinion begins like this: “We granted certiorari to decide whether a district attorney’s office may be held liable under §1983 for failure to train based on a single Brady violation. We hold that it cannot.”
      That was the whole theory presented to the Court. You can’t sue DA’s for bad acts or even malicious acts in most cases.
      Failure to train was the theory, and it is, I think, obvious that in this scenario, it’s a sham.

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