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Monday, September 26, 2011
Worst Decisions, #5: Connick v. Thompson
AFJ is counting down the 10 worst decisions of the Corporate Court's 2010-11 term. Last Friday, at #6, we talked about PLIVA v. Mensing, which gave generic drug-makers a free pass on safety labeling.
Worst Decisions of the 2010-11 Corporate Court Term: #7 Connick v. Thompson
Making it Easier for Prosecutors to Hide Evidence at the Expense of Innocent Defendants
A 5-4 split decision protected district attorneys who allow prosecutors in their office to illegally withhold exculpatory evidence from criminal defendants.
More than 14 years ago, John Thompson was accused of a high-profile murder. Following the publicity surrounding the murder accusation, victims of an unrelated armed robbery came forward and accused Thompson of that robbery. Thompson was convicted of the robbery after prosecutors hid the fact that the robber’s blood type did not match Thompson’s.
In the subsequent murder trial, Thompson did not testify to rebut the charges against him because doing so would have allowed his robbery conviction to be entered into evidence. Thompson was convicted of murder and spent 14 years on death row. Thompson’s private investigator found the exculpatory blood evidence one month before his scheduled execution. As a result, both of Thompson’s convictions were vacated.
Following his release, Thompson won $14 million in damages from Harry Connick, the Orleans Parish District Attorney, for his failure to train prosecutors about required disclosures of exculpatory evidence to defendants under Brady v. Maryland. The district attorney appealed this award, arguing that he could not be liable based on a single violation unless strong indications existed that training was necessary. Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, reversed the award, holding that “Thompson did not prove that [Connick] was on actual or constructive notice of, and therefore deliberately indifferent to, a need for more or different Brady training.”
Justice Ginsburg, in a scathing dissent that she read from the bench, argued that the conservative majority ignored extensive evidence demonstrating to the district attorney the need for training. The Court dismissed as irrelevant four Orleans Parish convictions that were reversed in the 10 years prior to Thompson’s armed robbery trial because of Brady violations. In addition to the blood evidence, the dissent described the prosecution’s failure to inform Thompson of several pieces of evidence that called into question the credibility of key witnesses.
Justice Ginsburg wrote that “it was hardly surprising that Brady violations in fact occurred” since: “(1) Connick, the Office’s sole policymaker, misunderstood Brady. (2) Other leaders in the Office, who bore direct responsibility for training less experienced prosecutors, were similarly uninformed about Brady. (3) Prosecutors in the Office received no Brady training. (4) The Office shirked its responsibility to keep prosecutors abreast of relevant legal developments concerning Brady requirements.” The dissent characterized the district attorney’s office as a “tinderbox” in which “Brady violations were nigh inevitable.” Thompson’s expert witness called Connick’s supervision of prosecutors on Brady “the blind leading the blind.”
Connick v. Thompson is number five on AFJ’s Worst Decisions of the 2010-11 Corporate Court term because district attorneys will now have less of an incentive to ensure that the prosecutors who work for them understand their legal obligations. As a result, innocent criminal defendants may never learn of favorable evidence that could save their lives and ensure their freedom.