Solitarywatch: John Thompson Takes a Louisiana Injustice from Death Row to the Supreme Court

October 5, 2010,

by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
The model electric chair sitting on the desk of New Orleans prosecutor JimWilliams was like a piece of stranger-than-fiction Louisiana 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. “They were trying to kill me,” he said last week.

That plan was thwarted, but not until Thompson had spent 14 years on death row at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. His appeals were exhausted and his execution just weeks away before his legal team uncovered evidence that had been intentionally suppressed by the prosecution. Granted a retrial, Thompson was exonerated. So was another of the men in the prosecutor’s model electric chair. Of the remaining three, one was granted a new trial, while two others had their sentences commuted to life in prison.

All in all, the prosecutor’s bloodthirsty desk ornament has become an emblem of the faulty prosecutions that took place under the 28-year reign of Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr., the father of the singer-actor and a Louisiana icon in his own right. In the past decade, fully a quarter of the men sentenced to death during Connick’s tenure have had their convictions overturned—every one of them based on evidence that cast doubt on their guilt, but was hidden from the defense by prosecutors.

Thompson is determined that the prosecutors’ conduct, which nearly cost him his life, should not go unpunished. “I am not going to let those motherfuckers get away with it,” he declares. It’s been a long haul, but on Wednesday, Thompson will be sitting in the Supreme Court, watching his lawyers argue that the New Orleans DA’s office must pay millions of dollars in restitution for railroading John Thompson into what they thought would be certain death in Angola’s lethal injection chamber.

At 11 a.m. on October 6, two days into its new session, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Connick v. Thompson. After they hear from lawyers representing Thompson, the justices will listen to representatives of the District Attorney’s office, who will argue that the office can’t be blamed for Thompson’s faulty conviction, and shouldn’t have to pay the unprecedented $14 million in damages awarded to him by a New Orleans jury in a civil case–one million for each year he spent on death row.

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