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.

Read more here.
The book Killing Time on Amazon.com.

Prosecuting Innocence: Resistance Is Futile

Borrowed the article at the bottom from our friends at Idaho Prison Watch; my commentary preceding it is what I put up today at Arizona Prison Watch. I decided to post it over here because of how the Scott Sisters got punished pretty brutally for their claim to innocence, too – and still are. We need some help writing new legislation to counter the power of the prosecutor to intimidate people into irresponsible plea agreements, or brutalize them in retaliation for going to trial.
 
———–from Arizona Prison Watch (February 25, 2010)—
 

The sentencing committee meeting was canceled again today, by the way – I have no idea when it’s rescheduled for. I hung out at the Capitol awhile anyway, handing out copies of Tenacious (a zine full of stuff by women in prison) to the women legislators I could find, since it was “Women’s Day at the Legislature” today, and I didn’t think they’d made any arrangements for state prisoners to participate or talk to their legislators. I also left one for Governor Brewer, with an article done by a woman who had cancer while at Perryville a few years back. She’s now with an organization that helps women in prison. I’ll post her story here when I get permission.

I hope those legislators I gave the zines to actually bother to read them. I don’t know when or how they’re going to hear a woman prisoner’s voice address their conditions otherwise. Maybe we should try to get them to hold hearings out at the prisons themselves. Given the Arizona Republic and Lumley Vampire reports on the physical condition of the facilities alone, they should have organized an emergency oversight committee to check it out in person. The legislature is responsible, after all, for compromising the safety of state prisoners and corrections employees in the first place. They’ve now been duly warned that they’ll be held liable for failing to follow up on it.

Anyway, the following article is very pertinent to the work of the House Sentencing Committee – and most of the issues I have with Andrew Thomas’ office. In fact, this is a very good reason why we don’t want that man to be Attorney General. He’ll be putting ten times as many innocent people away, while letting the really guilty ones walk by making questionable deals – like the one that put the Scott Sisters away. The innocent don’t have anything to fear, they think, nor do they have anything to trade. The guilty, on the other hand –  the “triggermen” – can trade them. 

There’s nothing guaranteed to get you a more severe punishment in America than insisting that you’re innocent and losing to the prosecutor at trial – and they make sure you know that when they make their offer. Their job is to prove guilt, not to find truth – don’t make any mistakes about that. They’re out to get convictions, by and large – not to protect the innocent. Victims are just useful tools to win their cases with, and to use to promote their own tough-on-crime image.

There are a few remarkable exceptions to that rule, of course. Some DA’s have been very committed to investigating reports of wrongful prosecutions/convictions. I hope that’s the beginning of a trend towards more ethical, responsible prosecutorial conduct. I have yet to see evidence of that happening in Arizona, though.

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What is Wrong with the Plea Bargain System in our Courts Today?

Frontline Interview with
John H. Langbein

John Langbein is a professor of law and legal history at Yale Law School. In this interview, he describes how the plea bargain system pressures people to buckle and accept a plea-even if they are innocent-and how prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys have a role, a stake even, in seeing that this happens. He also talks about the Supreme Court’s indifference to the pressures on a defendant in the plea process, and why he believes the rampant growth of pleas is rooted in the trial system’s failures.

(I have condensed this interview for the sake of this forum. You can view the entire interview on the link I provided below)

Q: “What is wrong with the plea bargain system in our courts today?”

Plea bargaining is a system that is best described as one of condemnation without adjudication. It is a system that replaces trial, which is what our constitution intended, with deals.

Second, those deals are coerced. The prosecutor is basically forcing people to waive their rights to jury trial by threatening them with ever greater sanctions if they refuse to plead and instead demand the right to jury trial.
But every defendant has a right to go to trial; it’s a choice they make to plead guilty.

The problem with choice arguments is that they neglect the main dynamic of plea bargan which is the pressure that the prosecutor puts on you to do it his way.

Plea bargain works by threat. What the prosecutor says to a criminal defendant in plea bargaining is, “Surrender your right to jury trial, or if you go to trial and are convicted of an offense, we will see to it that you are punished twice. Once for the offense, and once for having had the temerity to exercise your right to jury trial.” THAT is a coercive system.

(complete interview at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/plea/interviews/langbein.html)