Is Prosecutor Liable for Withholding Evidence of Innocence Resulting in Wrongful Conviction and Man Spending 14 Years on Death Row?October 18, 2010

The United States Supreme Court on October 6, 2010, heard oral argument in Connick v. Thompson, in which the Court will decide whether a man who was convicted of capital murder and held in solitary confinement on death row for 14 years can hold the New Orleans District Attorney's office civilly liable for withholding exculpatory evidence.

John Thompson, an African-American man, spent 14 years on Louisiana's death row and learned only a few weeks before his execution date that the prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence that would likely have demonstrated that he was not the murderer.

Under the Supreme Court's decision in Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are required to disclose to the defense any exculpatory evidence. After years of litigation, Mr. Thompson won a new trial and was found not guilty.

Mr. Thompson then filed a civil rights lawsuit, charging that the New Orleans District Attorney's office violated his constitutional rights. He contended that the prosecutor's office provided no training to their prosecutors on Brady requirements. A jury ruled in Mr. Thompson's favor, awarding him $14 million.

The district attorney's office appealed, and argued in the Supreme Court that it cannot be liable for failing to train prosecutors based on one violation. Rather, Mr. Thompson would have to prove a pattern and practice of Brady violations by the prosecutor's office to win his claim.

The Court's decision in Connick v. Thompson will have a critical impact on defendants' ability to hold prosecutors accountable for Brady violations, which unlike other forms of police and prosecutorial misconduct, are made in private with little chance of being discovered. Even in the rare case where incarcerated people or their postconviction lawyers manage to find the withheld evidence, prosecutors typically avoid liability by claiming immunity.

Last year, the Court dismissed a similar case against prosecutors in Iowa after the State agreed to a settlement rather than risk an adverse decision. In Pottawattamie, IA v. McGhee, two prosecutors coerced false testimony from a witness, fabricated evidence and withheld exculpatory evidence, resulting in the 1978 conviction of two African-American teenagers for the murder of an off-duty police officer.

Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee were sentenced to life in prison without parole and served nearly 25 years before they were able to access the police reports that revealed the prosecutors' actions and win their release.

They filed a civil rights lawsuit seeking money damages for the prosecutors' racially motivated violation of their constitutional rights. Federal courts found that the prosecutors were not immune from a suit for fabricating and manufacturing evidence before formal charges were filed, and the State appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Obama administration, through Solicitor General Elena Kagan, filed a brief supporting the prosecutors' argument that they should be immune from civil liability for their actions framing Harrington and McGhee. But after oral argument at the Supreme Court, Pottawattamie officials settled the case for $12 million.