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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 6:00 AM EDT

What angers Thompson, he said after his exoneration, is that "nobody in the prosecutor's office ever faces charges, nobody has to pay. A slap on the wrist for 'malfeasance' and then they're back at work doing the same old thing." Nick Trenticosta agrees. "As it stands, there are no deterrents to these prosecutors," he says. "If they get caught withholding evidence so what? Nothing happens to them."

So with the help of his lawyers, Thompson has sought to exact retribution through a different route. In 2005, he sued Connick, Williams, current district attorney Leon Cannizzaro, and the office of the DA. The state refused to settle the case, so it went to a jury, which awarded JT a record $14 million in damages. The state of Louisiana quickly appealed the verdict, which it claims will bankrupt the DA's office. State and federal appeals courts ruled in Thompson's favor, up to the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, at which point the state appealed again. Last spring, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear Connick v. Thompson in its fall session.

According to the brief filed by Thompson's lawyers, the Court will have to decide whether "the district attorney was deliberately indifferent to the need to train, monitor, or supervise his prosecutors" about what's known as the Brady rule—their obligation to hand over evidence favorable to the defense.  But Connick v. Thompson could determine what kind of recourse defendants have when their Brady rights are violated. Individual prosecutors already enjoy immunity from lawsuits in most instances; if it overturns Thompson's award, the Court might effectively give immunity to DA offices as well.

It's not surprising, then, that Connick v. Thompson has brought in a slew of amicus briefs in support of Thompson's position from civil libertarians. "If Connick wins on the ground that the DA's office is not responsible when its prosecutors withhold evidence, then it will be impossible to recover damages" in such cases, says Katie Schwartzmann, legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana, which has filed an amicus brief.

In Louisiana, exonerated prisoners are released with nothing more than $10 and a bus ticket. To change that, Thompson has founded Resurrection After Exoneration.

Because the Court is only considering the Thompson case, and not the full record of the Orleans Parish DA's office, it may also find that there is insufficient proof of negligence. "If Connick wins on the ground that one incident is not enough to establish the office's liability—although we think there was more of a record than that in this case—then future litigation will be difficult but not impossible," says Schwartzmann.

So while the stakes in this case are high for John Thompson, they are higher still for the next person to be tried and convicted by a prosecutor who is hiding evidence. A ruling in Connick's favor could deny that person any recourse.

Thompson is already thinking about that next innocent man.

When he was freed from prison, he said, he was more fortunate than most. "I had a wife, I had a house, I had a job" as an assistant at the Center for Equal Justice, working with clients on death row. "I had a solid foundation…Most guys did not have that. Guys were coming home struggling." In Louisiana, exonerated prisoners are released with nothing more than $10 and a bus ticket. To change that, Thompson has founded Resurrection After Exoneration, a group that tries to provide support for the wrongfully convicted.

At first, RAE focused on providing job skills. Then, JT told us, "I decided to have living quarters—a residential area where they live for 6 months to get readjusted to society. Downstairs we have computers, workshops. We try to bring in as much education as we can." Thompson also wants RAE to represent the "voice of innocence"—to be a place where the exonerated "can tell their stories. It's amazing how powerful these stories are."

Should he ever get his $14 million, he says, he will use part of it to fund the organization.

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