However, just weeks before the execution, Thompson's attorneys discovered the hidden evidence. The execution was stayed, and Thompson was eventually found not guilty of murder. Thompson sued the district attorney's office, run by Harry J. Connick (the father of the famous singer) and won $14 million in a civil rights judgment ($1 million for each year he served on death row).
The judgment was based on the jury's finding that Connick had been "deliberately indifferent" to the need to train his prosecutors. In briefs Thompson's lawyers write: "the behavior of the prosecutors in this case -- from the district attorney on down -- shocks the conscience." But lawyers for Leon A. Cannizzaro Jr., the current Orleans Parish District Attorney, argue that it was wrong for a jury to find the district attorney's office guilty "not for its own wrongdoing, but for wrongdoing by its employee."
At issue before the Court is whether the district attorney's office can be held liable for such a violation.
Henry Skinner was within a couple hours of his execution when the Supreme Court intervened. The Court has agreed to hear his case asking whether he could bring his request for DNA evidence as a civil rights claim.
Skinner was convicted in 1995 in Texas of killing his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons. Skinner, who said he doesn't remember much from the nights of the murders, says he could never have killed anyone because he was too incapacitated by massive quantities of alcohol and codeine.
Since his conviction, he has sought testing of the remainder of DNA material found at the crime scene. Although the State of Texas agreed to more testing, it did not test Ms. Busby's fingernail clippings, a bloody towel and two knives that were at the crime scene.
In court papers attorneys for the Texas district attorney argue that Skinner was proven guilty of the murders based not only on some DNA but on "extraordinary amounts of other physical evidence, his own statements, and numerous witnesses' testimony." The lawyers argue that states have important interests in "preserving the finality of valid convictions" as well as "avoiding the costs associated with defending successive, meritless challenges to convictions and sentences."
The high court will focus on a narrow procedural issue that has split some of the circuit courts: Can such a claim be brought as a civil rights claim, or is it restricted to the more traditional route of writ of habeas corpus -- the right of a defendant to know all the evidence against him or her?
According to Nina Morrison, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project, "This case is about equal access to justice and whether the civil rights law can be used to keep innocent people from being executed for crimes they didn't commit. Even though the court will consider a narrow procedural issue regarding which legal action is the appropriate one to bring for DNA testing, it raises issues of fairness and accuracy in the administration of the death penalty that have been in the forefront of the justice system over the last decade."
The Supreme Court will consider the Legal Arizona Workers Act, which penalizes employers for knowingly or intentionally employing unauthorized aliens. The government urged the court to hear the case, arguing that federal law preempts the Arizona law.