No Comment — April 1, 2011, 2:53 pm

The Supreme Court Stands Tall for Misbehaving Prosecutors

Can prosecutors press a criminal case against a man by suppressing the existence of forensic evidence that shows him to be innocent, without themselves being held accountable? “Yes,” says the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 decision (PDF), in a ruling by Justice Clarence Thomas. It’s a complicated story, but the core issue is fairly straightforward: prosecutorial accountability for serious misconduct—in this case, misconduct that put an innocent man on death row, and at one point within days of execution.

In 1985, John Thompson was arrested and charged with two separate crimes: a murder and an attempted armed robbery that took place three weeks later in New Orleans. Prosecutors opted for two separate trials, beginning with the robbery. Their thinking was likely tactical. If they got a conviction at the robbery trial, they could use that conviction against him at the murder trial, improving their chances at obtaining a conviction.

Two days before Thompson’s robbery trial was slated to begin, however, the prosecutor handling the case got a crime lab report showing that the perpetrator had left blood behind at the scene, and the blood was not Thompson’s. The law required the prosecutor to turn this report over to Thompson’s attorneys. Instead, he suppressed it and pressed forward with his case. The jury found Thompson guilty of the robbery. That conviction had a decisive impact on the second trial, too. Thompson was warned that if he testified in his own defense, the prosecution would be entitled to inform the jury of the robbery conviction and argue that he was not a truthful or reliable witness. Thompson therefore did not testify. The jury, disbelieving his alibi for the murder, perhaps because he failed to testify in support of it, convicted him and gave him a death sentence.

Just before Thompson was set to be executed in 1999, his attorney learned of the suppressed lab report and the grave misconduct of the prosecutor. Armed with this, Thompson’s convictions for both the robbery and the murder were overturned. When he was retried for murder in 2003, a jury, armed with much more testimony and evidence, concluded that he was innocent.

The question is whether Thompson is entitled to be compensated for the imprisonment and anguish to which he was subjected as a result of the gross misconduct of a prosecutor. A Louisiana jury decided that he was, and awarded Thompson $14 million in damages. On appeal, the extremely conservative Fifth Circuit divided evenly, affirming the district court. But Clarence Thomas and four of his colleagues on the bench have overturned that award, leaping to the defense of misbehaving prosecutors and creating a new standard that may render them effectively unaccountable.

The majority wants to make the suppression of the lab report into a momentary failing of a single man. Thomas concludes that the prosecutors are guilty of only a single “Brady violation”—that is, a violation of the duty to turnover exculpatory evidence—and that this is not enough to justify the defendant’s case against them. But in fact, the suppression continued over many years and involved faulty judgments by a number of people in the prosecutor’s office. Moreover, misconduct of Orleans Parish law enforcement officials has emerged as an embarrassment to the United States on the world stage, figuring even in discussions before monitoring human rights bodies and triggering federal prosecutions. Justice Ginsburg has the better of the argument, pointing to the majority’s dodgy presentation of the facts:

What 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 Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish.

The majority opinion turns a blind eye to the facts of the case as found by the Louisiana jury. Actually hearing the evidence first hand, they had no difficulty determining that the prosecutor fully intended to do what he did and persisted in doing it.

In America today, violations of Brady are epidemic, and they often produce the conviction of innocent defendants like Mr. Thompson. The court has effectively given a wink and a nod to rogue prosecutors, telling them they can put their thumb on the scale of justice from time to time and get away with it. But bad convictions erode confidence in the justice system, and often as not they let the real culprit run free.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today