Thursday, April 7th, 2011
New Orleans, Louisiana
There is an aura of myth that surrounds Lady Justice, who is pictured standing tall with the balanced scales of justice in her hands. She is blindfolded to assure impartiality and fairness. But if she read the decision about the death row inmate from New Orleans that was handled down by the U.S. Supreme Court last week, one could only wonder whether she dropped her scales, pulled off her blindfold, and wept.
If there was ever any doubt about the lack of fairness, competence and fundamental decency among the current majority composition of the Supreme Court, such doubt was put to rest by a decision that would make any oppressive and dictatorial government proud. Heavy words, that’s true. But one would have to look long and hard to find a more repugnant decision.
Here are the facts. New Orleanian John Thompson was convicted back in 1982 of first degree murder and given the death sentence. He came within days of being executed after spending 14 years on death row and 18 year’s total in prison. Five different prosecutors were involved in the case and all knew that a blood test and other key evidence had been hidden that showed Thompson was innocent.
On his death bed dying of cancer, one of the prosecutors confessed to a colleague that he had hidden the exculpatory blood sample. The colleague waited five more years before admitting that he too knew of the hidden evidence. Thompson, after 18 years, received a new trial, and his lawyers were finally able to produce ten difference pieces of evidence that had been kept from Thompson, that overwhelming showed he was innocent. The new jury took less than 35 minutes to find him not guilty.
Hiding evidence that can find the accused innocent is nothing new for prosecutors in New Orleans, both in state and federal court as well as with the FBI. The Innocence Project of New Orleans reviewed a number of convictions over the past 25 years in the city and concluded that prosecutors gave a “legacy” of suppressing evidence. The project said 36 men convicted in Orleans Parish alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Nineteen have since had their sentences overturned or reduced as a result.According to the Innocence Project in New Orleans, favorable evidence was concealed in a quarter of the murder convictions from 1973-2002. In 19 of 25 non-capital cases, the prosecutors withheld favorable evidence; in the other six cases, the courts ruled that evidentiary hearings were needed.
With full justification, Thompson sued the prosecutor’s office in New Orleans for ripping away and stealing 18 years of his life. He had two sons that he never saw grow up. A New Orleans jury awarded him 14 million dollars. Some said it was too much money. Would you give up 18 years of your life in solitary confinement on death row for 14 million dollars? On appeal, the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals, reputedly the most pro prosecutorial circuit in the nation, upheld the award in favor of Thompson.
But a bitterly divided Supreme Court said to Thompson “no way.” In a 5-4 decision, his case was tossed out by the Supreme Court– not because they disagree that the prosecutor’s office hid evidence (in fact all 9 justices agree on that point). Instead they tossed the case because, in their divine judicial opinion, they didn’t see any “pattern” of the prosecutor’s office doing this to other people besides Thompson (because one life ruined is apparently not enough). Sounds like a John Grisham novel with a bad ending, right? If only that were so. Unfortunately, this is real life and John Thompson gets nothing for his 18 years in jail. Not a red cent. Tough luck fella. The system failed you, but “stuff happens.”
This was not a decision based on a conservative interpretation of the law, even though the so called conservative block voted in lock step to deny Thompson’s claim. A true conservative justice would be strongly opposed to government oppression and the encroachment on the liberty of a falsely accused person. After all, when a prosecutor can operate with impunity, totally absent of any criminal or civil check on their actions, the seeds of fascism are planted. No, a true conservative judge would have held these rogue prosecutors fully accountable.
John Thompson, stunned by the Supreme Court’s decision, says he intends to spend his life working to help wrongly convicted inmates. He has founded a new group called Resurrection after Exoneration. Sadly, he will not have the financial resources that the lower courts rightly concluded should have paid to help him pursue his goal.
The judicial system failed John Thompson. Along with Lady Justice, we all should shed a tear.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” – Elie Wiesel
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.