New Orleans businessman Raymond Liuzza, Jr. was murdered in 1984. The homicide was observed by one witness who was able to provide a clear description of the perpetrator as African American, six feet tall, with closely cropped hair. Several weeks earlier an armed robbery had occurred. During the scuffle that ensued in the armed robbery, the perpetrator’s blood got on the pants of one of the victim’s. A swatch of clothing with the perpetrator’s blood was removed and sent to the New Orleans Police Lab for analysis.
Following the murder, an individual approached the family and offered to provide information on the murder in exchange for money. The conversation in which the so-called informant sought compensation for his assistance was recorded. He claimed to be able to provide an additional witness and the name of the murderer. Based on the informant’s interview, John Thompson was arrested for the Liuzza murder. When his picture appeared in the local media, the families of the juvenile victims of the armed robbery approached authorities claiming to identify Thompson as the robber.
Thompson was tried and convicted first on the armed robbery charge. He was sentenced to 49 ½ years without possibility of parole. At his murder trial he was inhibited from testifying in his own defense because the armed robbery conviction that would have been used to impeach his credibility and show a propensity for violence. Following his conviction for the Liuzza murder, prosecutors argued that the length of sentence in the armed robbery case left only the death penalty as a proper sentence for the murder. Thompson was sentenced to die.
Thompson would spend the next 18 years in prison, 14 of those years in isolation on death row. Appeal after appeal would be turned down as he protested his innocence, confined 23 ½ hours a day to an isolation cell. With appeals exhausted, his execution was scheduled for May 20, 1999. In late April of that year a defense investigator found an old microfiche file related to the armed robbery at the Police Crime Lab. It showed that the perpetrator of the armed robbery had Type B blood. Thompson’s blood is Type O.
Before proceeding to how prosecutors in this case abused their power to convict an innocent man, let’s take a minute to understand the law. The U. S. Constitution requires fair trials and due process. In Brady v. Maryland (1963), the U. S. Supreme Court determined that meeting those requirements demanded that prosecutors provide potentially exculpatory evidence in their possession to the defense. Exculpatory evidence is evidence that tends to prove a defendant’s innocence.
Back to the story. As the cases proceeded, the murder case was set to be tried first, with the armed robbery trial set to follow a few weeks later. The four prosecutors, including a senior Deputy District Attorney as special prosecutor, worked the cases. They successfully moved to have the trials reversed, trying the robbery case first. They would later admit that the purpose was twofold. First, a conviction for robbery would inhibit Thompson from exercising his constitutional right to testify in his own defense at the murder trial. Second they could use the robbery conviction to help achieve their goal of getting a death sentence in the murder trial.
Two days before the armed robbery trial, prosecutors received the results of the blood tests from the crime lab. By later admission of the District Attorney’s office, they intentionally withheld the crime lab report and did not turn it over to the defense despite the defense having officially requested, among other things, “all scientific test results.”
As the armed robbery trial began its first day, prosecutors removed all evidence in the case from the police property room and checked it into the court property room. Except for the blood stained swatch. The swatch was removed from the police property room, but never made it to the court property room. It has never been seen again.
As Thompson’s case moved to the murder trial, the prosecutors, robbery conviction in hand, failed to turn over the witness description of the murderer. You see, Thompson wasn’t six feet tall with close cropped hair. He was 5 foot 8 and wore his hair in a large Afro in 1984. Prosecutors also failed to turn over the audio tape of their “informant” showing that he was paid for his services. And that additional “witness” the informant led them to? He became the prosecution’s key witness. He was an African American, six feet tall, whose nickname was Kojak because of his close cropped hair.
Authorities also failed to produce a police report in which one of their witnesses gave statements to the police that contradicted their testimony at trial. They also coached witnesses, improper conduct by legal ethics standards, to work around evidence supporting Thompson’s innocence. In all, at least ten exculpatory exhibits were withheld from the defense.
No, that’s not all. In 1994, five years prior to Thompson’s scheduled execution, one of his prosecutors fell ill with terminal cancer. With just months left to live, and perhaps fearing for his eternal soul, he confessed to another former prosecutor who was not involved in the case that he had withheld the blood evidence. The confession was held secret for the next five years as Thompson languished on death row. It was not disclosed until after the investigator found the old microfiche of the lab results.
When all of what has just been related was brought before the Louisiana Court of Appeal, they vacated both convictions. It was the fifth case in ten years out of this prosecutor’s office to be overturned because of withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense. The armed robbery charges were dropped, but the prosecution decided to re-try the murder case. It took the jury just 35 minutes to find Thompson not guilty.
This case found its way to the U. S. Supreme Court all these years later because Thompson sued the District Attorney’s office for its misconduct. He received an award of $14 million from the jury. Yesterday the U. S. Supreme Court threw out the jury’s award ruling that Thompson had failed to prove a pattern of misconduct that required training to correct. Full opinion.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision. He focused solely on the blood evidence, determining that this involved a rogue act, not a pattern of conduct that would put the office on notice of a need to train to avoid unconstitutional violations of citizen’s rights. But, if you want to know the whole story, you’ll need to read the dissent by Justice Ginsburg.
But, that’s not what this article is about. This piece is about issues the Supreme Court didn’t address.
The Appeals Process
For well over a decade there has been considerable pressure from those who favor capital punishment to shorten the appeals process in death penalty cases. They have argued for quicker “justice”, and they have been successful in cutting off parts of the appellate process at both the federal and state levels. New and tougher procedural requirements have also been added with the goal of shortening the appeals process.
If you fall into the camp of wanting to shorten the appeals process, please take a moment to reflect on the case of John Thompson. Were it not for the dedicated lawyers, paralegals and investigators who sought appeal after appeal he likely would have been executed before the misconduct of the prosecutors could have been discovered. Sometimes it takes years or decades to uncover the truth. Sometimes it is never uncovered. Please take a moment to think about the case of John Thompson the next time you are inclined to protest that the appeals process drags on too long and prolongs the “day of final justice” that you seek.
Not long ago I posted an article about police misconduct in the form of beating false confessions out of those in their custody. That too involved men accused of murder and included death penalties later vacated due to official misconduct. Those cases came out of Illinois which recently repealed the death penalty. This case comes from Louisiana. In the prior article, I noted that official abuse of power is not limited to one state, one police department or one prosecutor’s office.
Yesterday, the U. S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, opened a door prosecutors will be able to drive a truck through without having to worry about being held ultimately responsible for similar misconduct in the future.
Police and prosecutors have enormous power over those they arrest and prosecute. It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Please take heed that this applies not only to foreign despots, but to those fallible humans who populate our own small and large centers of power. We complain bitterly when diplomatic immunity prevents the prosecution of foreign diplomats who commit crimes on our soil. That same outrage should rain down on those we trust with enforcing our laws and who abuse that trust with a silent immunity to hide behind. Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision will not help.
[NOTE: The photo above is untitled, but comes from an image search for "Lady Justice Weeping"]