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Connick v. Thompson

Connick v. Thompson was a supreme court case decided on March 29, 2011, overturning an appellate court decision that upheld a $14 million decision in favor of a man wrongfully sentenced to death and imprisoned for eighteen years.

The two parties involved were John Thompson , the wrongfully accused, and the District Attorney's Office of Harry F. Connick , who was the DA during Thompson's original trial. Thompson was arrested in 1985 for murder, and was later also charged with armed robbery. The trial for the robbery occurred first, during which prosecutors withheld vital information that would have exonerated Thompson. Specifically, blood evidence found at the scene of the crime did not match types with Thompson's blood. In accordance with Brady v. Maryland , a SCOTUS case from 1964, exculpatory evidence (consequently known as "Brady material") must be released to the defense if it could have an effect on the verdict or resulting sentence of a trial.

As a result of this breach in due process, Thompson was found guilty of the robbery before the murder trial took place. Thompson's lawyers decided that his credibility had been tainted so much by this conviction that he should not take the stand in his own murder trial, and so could not impeach the credibility of the witnesses against him. Thompson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Just weeks before his scheduled execution, after all appeals had been exhausted, Thompson's lawyers found the withheld information, and got the convictions for both crimes thrown out in 1999 and 2002. Thompson was quickly acquitted of both charges in retrials and released in 2003 after eighteen years of wrongful imprisonment.

In 2005, Thompson sued the DA's office of Harry F. Connick under 42 U. S. C. §1983 for deprivation of constitutionally guaranteed rights. Specifically, Thompson claimed that the DA's office had failed to provide adequate training to its attorneys regarding the release of so-called Brady material. Previous suits have held that, in order for such claim to be valid, the lack of training must constitute " deliberate indifference to the rights of person s..." The court found that, since there was not a clear pattern of indifference by the DA's office, and since attorneys are reasonably expected to be trained and educated concerning Brady materials in law school, the facts of the case did not meet this criterion, and thus overturned the lower court's award of $14 million dollars, one million for each year spent on death row (which had reached $20 million with interest), in a 5-4 decision with a concurring opinion written by Justice Scalia and a strongly worded dissenting opinion by Justice Ginsburg.

This case highlights some of the issues with the adversarial form the American system of justice takes. It might seem strange that there even needs to be a specific rule requiring a prosecutor to reveal evidence that could prove a person's innocence, but in a system where both sides are ethically obligated to do their best to win for their side, it's easy to see how either side might lose track of the end goal of the courts - to ensure that guilty are punished and the innocent protected. And while withholding exculpatory evidence is unquestionably evil, it is certainly not always the case that it is done with ill intention, or with any intention at all. A prosecutor could very easily succumb to cognitive bias and undervalue a piece of evidence's importance in a trial or utility to the defense, since it is his job to look at things from the other side.

This case may show to be important and oft-cited in the future, and could establish a foundation for cases determining the liability of prosecutors in the inevitable false-positives of the justice system.

The decision: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/09-571.ZS.html

The dissent: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/09-571.ZD.html

An op-ed by Thompson:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/opinion/10thompson.html

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