An alarming Supreme Court ruling against an innocent man
Apr 05, 2011
by Lisa Rea
It is hard to fathom the actions of the Supreme Court at times. This ruling is one of those times. Read the case of John Thompson, a wrongfully convicted man in New Orleans who spent 14 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
I have written of a case like this previously (i.e. exoneree Greg Wilhoit on Oklahoma's death row) but this case has a different twist. The exoneree was seeking compensation from the District Attorney for the years he spent on death row because a prosecutor who worked for his office hid evidence that would have freed him---a blood test among other things. The Supreme Court ruling (5-4) written by Justice Clarence Thomas states that while there was "misconduct" by the prosecutor (Ginsburg points out there were actually four prosecutors involved), that "did not prove deliberate indifference" by the District Attorney.
The Court does not seem to deny that this grave misconduct happened. But somehow the attorneys for Thompson had to prove that the hiding of the evidence showed "deliberate indifference " by the district attorney's office, by showing, for example that this was no mere single incident but instead was a pattern of misconduct. When Thompson was exonerated he was days away from execution. Any reasonable person would have to conclude that if evidence had been withheld, especially very hard evidence like a blood test, then the actions of the prosecutors were worse than "deliberate indifference"; they were criminal.
The Supreme Court in the United States is the court of last resort--the last stop. Your pleas can go no further. That is what is so disturbing about this ruling. As you read the LA TIMES story you learn a few additional facts about this case. Not only did the prosecution hide a blood test which would have proven Thompson's innocence they also hid eye witness evidence from the defense that also would have proven his innocence. In addition, Thompson's attorneys provided evidence of other similar cases in New Orleans where key evidence was hidden from defese attorneys. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said in her dissent that the court was shielding a city and its prosecutors for "flagrant" misconduct that nearly cost a man his life.
These are serious charges against the New Orleans's district attorney's office. The evidence that was brought forth by Thompson's lawyers before this court showed that at least four prosecutors knew of the hidden blood test. Apparently, those prosecutors did nothing to right this wrong. I do not know what the attorneys representing Thompson needed to do to prove their case. But you can believe that this was about money and power.
When a wrongful conviction occurs whom do you hold accountable? That 's a question that must be asked if you seek to apply restorative justice to this case. It's an important question and it is why this case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Thompson was seeking compensation for the 14 wasted and fearful years on death row. Thompson was attempting to hold the district attorney's office accountable. The Supreme Court's ruling concluded that the prosecutors' boss is not responsible for this travesty of justice.
According to the Innocence Project as of 2011 there have been 261 exonerations in the U.S. That number is approximate since the Innocent Project was formed in 1992. Before that date few organizations worked on this issue (except one that I am aware of which is the Centurion Ministries). In 2007 there were 200 innocent men exonerated based on DNA evidence. Of that 200 the Innocence Project states that approximately 45 % have received some compensation for the years in prison or death row with amounts ranging from $25,000 to $12.12 million. (source: Christian Science Monitor) This compensation usually comes by way of standardized compensation statutes on a state by state basis. Some states have laws determining the rate of compensation and some don't. That, too, is changing but not without a fight.
What is alarming with this Supreme Court ruling against an innocent man is that the ruling seems to reflect the same attitude as the New Orleans's District Attorney's office. It just apparently doesn't care whether John Thompson was falsely convicted and almost executed. Ultimately, the question of who to hold liable is unanswered.
I do a lot of work on restorative justice issues online through blogs like RJONLINE and other social networking sites. I said when this ruling came down that this does not mean it is over. It might be over today for this innocent man, John Thompson, but cases like this will be back. Someone is to blame for wrongful convictions. Sometimes errors are made, all too often due to misidentification of eye witnesses, but what we see here is a deliberate case of misconduct. Justice Thomas was looking for a pattern of wrong doing instead of clear evidence of wrong doing in this singular case. However, Justice Ginsburg is right. Can flagrant misconduct that nearly cost a man his life be ignored?
What we should care about ---and I think it is a moral imperative-- is how to make things right after wrongful convictions and attempt to pay back the innocent person.
Some ask how can you pay back someone for lost years in prison or death row? It's not easy but at the very least our justice system should attempt to do so. The Supreme Court failed to do just that in this ruling. This problem is far from over.