Supreme Court Denies $14 Million in Damages to Wrongly Convicted Louisiana Man

Jury gave John Thompson $14 million; the Supreme Court took it away.

April 1, 2011— -- Fourteen might not be John Thompson's lucky number.

He spent 14 years on death row in Louisiana until a stunning revelation came to light: the prosecution had failed to turn over a police crime lab report that would eventually prove his innocence.

As a free man, Thompson went on to win a $14 million award after a jury found that the Louisiana District Attorney for Orleans Parish had failed to train his prosecutors about their legal obligation to turn over favorable evidence to the defense.

But on Tuesday, Thompson was stripped of the award by a divided Supreme Court.

Thompson says that since he became a free man, not much can make him angry.

"If I wasn't shaken by the seven execution dates I got, or watching my friends on death row die, I can't be shaken by what the world has to offer out here," he said in a recent interview.

But he says that he is angry that the Supreme Court ruling means no one will be held accountable for his years on death row, or his near execution.

"It's not about $14 million, because that was never my money anyway," he said. "People should be worried about what it means: there is no accountability. We just gave prosecutors permission to kill. That's the reality. "

Thompson's odyssey began in 1985 when he was convicted of murder and, in a separate case, attempted armed robbery. He was sentenced to death.

However, just weeks before the execution, Thompson's attorneys discovered that during the trial the prosecution had learned the blood type of the perpetrator. The information was never made available to the defense.

Once Thompson's lawyers discovered the report, they knew he would be found innocent because the blood type of the perpetrator did not match Thompson's.

As a free man, Thompson eventually sued the district attorney's office, run by Harry Connick Sr. (the father of the famous singer). He won $14 million in a civil rights judgment based on the jury's finding that Mr. Connick had been "deliberately indifferent" to the need to train his prosecutors about their legal obligation to turn over evidence that could be favorable to the defense. An appeals court affirmed the district court's ruling.

Supreme Court Denies $14 Million for Wrongly Convicted Man

But lawyers for Connick appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that a single incident could not prove that a district attorney failed to train prosecutors on the obligations to turn over evidence.

"Without a history of similar violations, a district attorney's allegedly deficient training cannot meet the rigorous fault and causation requirements for failure-to-train liability," attorneys for Connick argued in court papers.

The Supreme Court agreed. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, wrote that, "by their own admission," the prosecutors who tried Thompson's armed robbery case failed to carry out justice. "But the only issue before us is whether Connick, as the policymaker for the district attorney's office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train the attorney under his authority."

The majority found that Connick's office could not be held liable.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for herself and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, took the rare step of reading her dissent from the bench.

Ginsburg said, "The record of this case abundantly shows flagrant indifference to Thompson's rights."

Ginsburg took note of "long-concealed prosecutorial transgressions" in Thompson's trial that were neither "isolated nor atypical."

She said at least five prosecutors in the office had concealed evidence vital to Thompson's defense.

"I would uphold the jury's verdict awarding damages to Thompson for the gross, deliberately indifferent and long-continuing violation of his fair trial right."

In court papers, lawyers representing Connick wrote that he had served as a powerful district attorney for Orleans Parish, the county that includes the city of New Orleans. "He vastly improved how the office processed its massive caseload, and how it mentored the more than 700 prosecutors who would work there over the years."

Connick "sought to create a culture that encouraged prosecutors to understand and obey their legal obligations," wrote his lawyers.

Supreme Court Denies $14 Million for Wrongly Convicted Man

But Thompson said he feels otherwise: "I think very, very low of Mr. Connick, he was a politician, he wasn't worried about law."

Since his release Thompson has won private grants and become the founder and director of Resurrection after Exoneration, a group dedicated to helping those who have been exonerated after death sentences. The group runs a transition house to provide temporary housing for former inmates and to teach them potential job skills.

"I'm dedicating myself to accountability," Thompson said.