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. Continue reading