U.S. Supreme Court Holds Innocent Man May Not Sue Prosecutors Responsible for Misconduct That Nearly Resulted in his Execution


The United States Supreme Court on March 29, 2011, held in Connick v. Thompson that Louisiana prosecutors who failed to turn over exculpatory evidence could not be held liable for damages where their admitted misconduct caused John Thompson to spend 14 years on death row — and to nearly be executed on several occasions — for a crime he did not commit.

Prosecutors are required to disclose exculpatory information or evidence to the defense prior to trial.

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office that prosecuted John Thompson admitted that, in prosecuting Mr. Thompson for attempted armed robbery, its prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that should have been turned over to the defense, including evidence that the main informant against Mr. Thompson had received a reward from the victim’s family, that the eyewitness described someone who looked nothing like him, and that a blood sample taken from the crime scene did not match his blood type. Mr. Thompson was convicted.

Because of that conviction, Mr. Thompson did not testify in his own defense in his later trial for murder, and he was again convicted, and sentenced to death. He spent 18 years in prison, including 14 years on death row, where the State of Louisiana repeatedly attempted to execute him.

One month before Mr. Thompson’s scheduled execution in 1999, his investigator discovered the undisclosed evidence from his armed robbery trial. The reviewing court determined that the evidence was exculpatory, and both of Mr. Thompson’s convictions were vacated. At his second trial on the murder charges, Mr. Thompson testified in his own defense and was acquitted.

After his release from prison, Mr. Thompson sued Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr., for damages. He alleged that Connick had failed to train his prosecutors adequately about their duty to produce exculpatory evidence and that the lack of training caused the misconduct in his case. The jury awarded Mr. Thompson $14 million ($1 million for each year spent on death row), and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted Mr. Connick’s request for review. In an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court reversed the lower courts, holding that the district attorney could not be held liable because Mr. Thompson “did not prove a pattern a pattern of similar violations.”

The decision discounts the fact that, during the ten years before Mr. Thompson’s robbery trial, Louisiana courts overturned four convictions due to similar violations by prosecutors in Connick’s office. Those incidents were not similar enough to Mr. Thompson’s case to “put Connick on notice that specific training was necessary to avoid this constitutional violation,” the Court reasoned, because they did not involve blood evidence, a crime lab report, or physical or scientific evidence.

Connick acknowledged that his prosecutors “were coming fresh out of law school” and he didn’t know whether they had proper training; and he had “stopped reading law books . . . and looking at opinions” when he was elected District Attorney in 1974. Connick had even been indicted by federal prosecutors for suppressing a lab report like the one hidden from Mr. Thompson.

The Court nonetheless held that Connick could not be held liable for failing to train his prosecutors because he was entitled to rely on the fact that his prosecutors had all graduated from law school, were required to take continuing legal education classes, and were subject to ethics rules.

Justice Ginsburg in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, concluded that “[w]hat happened here, the Court’s opinion obscures, was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of . . . disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish.”

Prosecutors have absolute immunity from civil liability for their actions as prosecutors. The Court’s decision all but eliminating one of the few remaining grounds to hold prosecutors accountable for their misconduct raises serious questions about how to ensure that prosecutors follow the law.