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Supreme Court rules prosecutors can lie and fabricate evidence
COMMENT: The Supreme Court’s decision in Connick v. Thompson virtually gives license to prosecutors to lie, fabricate or withhold evidence, since they apparently can’t be held accountable for knowingly or intentionally sending an innocent man to prison and even death row.
Posted April 10, 2011
WASHINGTON – An ideologically divided Supreme Court on Tuesday stripped a $14 million award from a wrongfully convicted man who had spent 14 years on death row and successfully sued New Orleans prosecutors for misconduct.
[A dissenting Ginsburg] said the actions of prosecutors under the control of Connick, who left office in 2003 and is the father of the famous singer of the same name, “dishonored” the obligation to turn over evidence favorable to the accused established in Brady v. Maryland, nearly 50 years ago.
There is no dispute that one of Connick’s prosecutors did not turn over a blood test that would have shown Thompson innocent of one of the charges against him. But Thomas said that a single incident is not enough to prove liability for the district attorney’s office and that Thompson did not show a pattern of similar violations.
Thompson was convicted of armed robbery in 1985, before he stood trial for the murder of Raymond Liuzza, the son of a prominent New Orleans hotel owner. Prosecutors used the armed robbery conviction as a way to coerce Thompson not to take the stand in his own defense, and, after conviction, to secure the death penalty. A pair of lawyers at a large Philadelphia law firm took up his case to spare him death; at one point, Thompson came within weeks of execution.
But in 1999, an investigator discovered that a blood test conducted in the armed robbery case showed that Thompson was not the perpetrator. Prosecutors acknowledged that it was withheld from Thompson’s attorneys.
April 10, 2011
Washington (CNN) — A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled against a former death row inmate who sought damages from the state after prosecutors hid crucial blood tests that would have earlier proven his innocence. The 5-4 decision Tuesday involved John Thompson, who came within weeks of execution and had spent 18 years behind bars before being set free after the new forensic evidence came to light.
At issue was whether a district attorney’s office should be held liable, under a “failure to train” standard, when one of its prosecutors unconstitutionally withholds exculpatory evidence from a criminal defendant.
Then-New Orleans area District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. claimed his office should not be held fully responsible after one of his staff attorneys violated long-standing, accepted procedures on handling evidence in criminal trials.
Thompson’s lawyers said the DA’s office as a whole should be held liable for the poor training of prosecutors working under Connick.
Connick v. Thompson: U.S. Supreme Court Allows Prosecutors to Hide Evidence Favorable to the Accused without Consequence
Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
Posted April 10, 2011
What the Supreme Court Held
Essentially, the Court ruled that a district attorney’s office cannot held liable under § 1983 for a failure to train its prosecutors based on a single Brady violation (prosecutorial misconduct). The Court adhered by a standard it set in 1977 in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services which requires an individual suing a local government municipality prove that his/her injury was caused by an action taken pursuant to an “official municipality policy” and requires a showing that decisions by the government’s lawmakers (such as a city council or a district attorney’s office), as well as acts by its “policymaking officials,” are wrongful practices so “persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law.”
Thompson did not try to prove a pattern of similar Brady violations by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, although he did point to four reversals of convictions for Brady violations by the Louisiana courts emanating out of Connick’s office during the ten years prior to his trial. The Supreme Court casually dismissed these four reversals, saying they were dissimilar to Thompson’s situation and, therefore, could not have put Connick on notice that there was a need for Brady training among his assistants.
We’re not making this stuff up. That’s what Justice Clarence Thomas said, and he was joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Kennedy. But let’s look at the facts. Thompson was put to trial in 1985. During the 23-year period from the pronouncement of the Brady rule in 1963 by the Supreme Court and Thompson’s trial, Brady was cited, followed or distinguished in 40 cases decided by the high court, in 222 cases by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and in 179 cases by the Louisiana Supreme Court and the state’s courts of appeals. That’s a total 441 cases in which Brady was explained, discussed, or just mentioned by those various federal and state courts before Thompson was put to trial.
Just how much notice did District Attorney Harry Connick need that his assistants needed “training” in this area of law; namely, that district attorneys could not lie and cheat by fabricating evidence, concealing favorable evidence from the defense, and encouraging or at the least sanctioning perjured testimony in order to secure criminal convictions. This was evidenced by a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court in Kyles v. Whitley, a precedent ruling in an Orleans Parish capital murder conviction that sent Curtis Lee Kyles to Louisiana’s death row where he joined Thompson. Kyles, like Thompson, was innocent and the New Orleans police built its case around him through a well-known informant. Prior to Kyles trial, his defense attorney filed a Brady motion seeking discovery of all exculpatory evidence, and despite having in its possession at least 7 pieces of critical evidence that tended to exonerate Kyles, one of Connick’s assistants told a bald faced lie to the court, saying we have “no exculpatory evidence of any nature.”
Even though the Kyles decision was handed down 10 years after Thompson was convicted, it was at the very least prima facie evidence that deliberate, methodical, and unethical Brady violations had been a fixture in Harry Connick’s office since his election as Orleans Parish District Attorney in 1973. The repeated reversals of criminal convictions over a 20-year period for Brady violations—ten years before and 10 years after Thompson’s conviction—was more than ample evidence that Connick was not only aware of this pattern of systemic prosecutorial misconduct in his office but that he ignored, condoned, or perhaps even encouraged, the “convict at any costs” mentality associated with Brady violation convictions. What does seem obvious is that there was no serious training, or strict policies in place, demanding that that Brady be followed or that exculpatory evidence be turned over to the defense.
We endorse everything Justice Ginsburg said about the John Thompson travesty. We believe Justice Thomas, and his conservative brethren, have given rogue prosecutors a virtual free pass to lie and cheat, even when they knowingly send innocent people to prison. These five justices have given constitutional blessing to the deplorable, shameful, and ever-increasing taint of prosecutorial misconduct in our legal system, and that is a judicial disgrace. The law, and its constitutional foundation, can be twisted and manipulated to achieve any objective, too often political ones. And that is precisely what we believe occurred in the Thompson case—a decision by pro-prosecution justices designed to cover and insulate prosecutorial misconduct.
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