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14 Years on Death Row. $14 Million in Damages?

John Thompson was sentenced to death after the New Orleans DA's office hid evidence that could have saved him. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether to make the DA pay.

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The model electric chair sitting on the desk of the New Orleans prosecutor Jim Williams seemed like a classic piece of Southern Gothic. But for John Thompson, it was all too real. "Seated" in the electric chair were photographs of five African American men that the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office had proudly sent to death row. Thompson's picture was dead center. The meaning was pretty clear, he recalls: "They were trying to kill me."

Thompson spent 14 years on death row—until, with his appeals exhausted and execution just weeks away, his lawyers discovered evidence that they say the prosecution had deliberately hidden. Based on the new evidence, he was granted a retrial and exonerated. So was another of the men in the pictures. Of the remaining three, one was granted a new trial, while two others had their sentences commuted to life in prison.

To many criminal justice advocates, the prosecutor's morbid desk ornament has become an emblem of the 28-year reign of Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., the father of the singer and a Louisiana icon—and crooner—in his own right. (Kennedy assassination buffs also know Connick as the man who attempted to suppress the files from his predecessor Jim Garrison's investigation, immortalized in Oliver Stone's JFK). Fully a quarter of the men sentenced to death during Connick's tenure (he retired in 2003) have had their convictions overturned—each time because of evidence that cast doubt on their guilt, but was hidden from the defense by prosecutors.

Now, the Supreme Court is about to weigh in on what the DA's office owes to Thompson for his 14 years on death row. On Wednesday, two days into the Court's new session, Thompson will be in Washington, watching oral arguments in Connick v. Thompson. Representatives of the New Orleans D.A.'s office will argue that the court should overturn the unprecedented damages awarded to him by a New Orleans jury: $1 million for each year he spent on death row.

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Thompson's story—complete with deathbed revelations and last-minute stays of execution—is compelling enough that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck at one time had plans to make it into a feature film, in which they would play his lawyers. (The project is currently in limbo.) There's also a new book out on Thompson's experience, called Killing Time. But the implications of Connick v. Thompson reach far beyond John Thompson's life and even beyond New Orleans. The justices' decision in the case will determine how far a district attorney's office can be held responsible for the conduct of prosecutors.

John Thompson, who goes by JT, is now 48. The steady, intense gaze behind his wire-rimmed glasses matches his calm, measured speech, but flashes of anger break through from time to time. He was a 22-year-old father of two when he was convicted of murdering a white New Orleans hotel executive. Because three weeks prior he had been convicted of attempted armed robbery—a crime in which he also claimed innocence—JT was advised not to testify on his own behalf at his murder trial. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death, based in part on the "aggravating factor" of his armed robbery conviction.

In 1985, JT arrived on death row at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and set about the business of trying to survive. He was helped by his faith and by his friendship with the members of the Angola 3—three former Black Panthers who had been placed in solitary confinement. "I was like babysitted by them. They took me on like a big son or something," he told us. "Who I am now was molded by them."

Like many condemned inmates, Thompson wrote many letters to attorneys and received mostly rejections—about a hundred, he says. Then help came through the Capital Defense Project at Loyola University in New Orleans. In 1998, lawyers from the project began working on his case, together with two pro bono attorneys, Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney, from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a venerable old Philadelphia firm that has become a huge international powerhouse in corporate law.

Thompson's lawyers stuck with his case through 11 years of appeals and seven execution dates. But in 1999, the Supreme Court rejected their appeal, and they had to tell their client that the process had been exhausted. An eighth execution date was set for the following month.

"We had to get back into court," said Nick Trenticosta, who worked on JT's case as director of the Louisiana Capital Defense Project (now renamed the Center for Equal Justice). "So we got an investigator and she was able to spend days at the police department going through all kinds of old records." Finally, the researcher found an explosive set of documents: The state had analyzed blood found on a pair of pants worn by one of the victims of the armed robbery, blood believed to be the perpetrator's. The blood type was B. Thompson's was O.

But the story got even more complicated: Upon learning of the attorneys' discovery, another former New Orleans prosecutor, Mike Riehlmann, came forward with an astounding tale: Five years earlier, he said, his colleague Gerry Deegan, who was a junior assistant DA on the Thompson case, had told him that he'd hidden the test results and taken the pants from the evidence room. Riehlmann signed an affidavit, and JT's convictions began to unravel.

The attorneys moved for a stay of execution; eventually the Louisiana Supreme Court vacated the robbery conviction, and a state district court changed his death sentence to life in prison because the aggravating factor was no longer present. Four years later, his murder conviction—which had been based entirely on testimony from witnesses who got cash or plea bargains for their testimony—was overturned as well. At his retrial in 2003, the jury took 35 minutes to find him not guilty. After 18 years, JT was a free man.

"They all try to portray it as rogue prosecutor; a fluke. But Harry Connick used to give awards to prosecutors for successfully convicting people."

At the time, district attorney Connick told the Associated Press that the Thompson case was an isolated one. "We follow the rules," Connick said. "We have an ongoing and continuing obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence and we do." Not so, says Trenticosta. "They all try to portray it as rogue prosecutor; a fluke," he says, but "Harry Connick used to give awards to prosecutors for successfully convicting people." Connick, Trenticosta said, created a culture where convictions were won "at any cost."

Findings by the Innocence Project of New Orleans back up that assessment. In a 2008 report, the Project reviewed the record of Connick's 28-year-tenure, and found that the practice of suppressing evidence was so prevalent that it could be called "a legacy in New Orleans":

According to available records, favorable evidence was withheld from 9 of the 36 (25%) men sentenced to death in Orleans Parish from 1973-2002. Four of those men were eventually exonerated... In other words, one in every four men sent to death row by the New Orleans District Attorney's office from 1973-2002 was convicted after evidence that could have cast doubt on their guilt was withheld from them at trial. Four men, about 11%, were completely innocent.

One of those innocent men was 16-year-old Shareef Cousin, sent to death row for murder in 1995. He stayed there until the prosecutor in the case was shown to have both encouraged witnesses to lie on the stand and withheld a videotape that proved Cousin was playing basketball at the time of the murder.

Dan Bright was sentenced for murder in 1996. Attorneys later discovered a statement from the FBI, suppressed by prosecutors at the time of Bright's trial, indicating that a confidential informant had identified another man as the killer. "These guys were perpetrating a fraud on the public," the forewoman of Bright's jury told New Orleans City Business, "and let me sentence an innocent man to death."

Yet there have been few, if any, consequences for prosecutors. In 2005, a prosecutor in the Cousin case was found guilty of withholding evidence; the Louisiana State Supreme Court gave him a three month suspension, then suspended that sentence. Jim Williams, the prosecutor with the electric chair on his desk, is now in private practice. Thompson's prosecutor, Gerry Deegan, died of cancer. Mike Riehlmann, who sat on the deathbed confession, was briefly suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court for doing so; he is now a defense attorney. Harry Connick Sr. is comfortably retired.

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