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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading