Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Wrongful Conviction Suit Against New Orleans DA, Vacates $14 Million Judgment

by Derek Gilna and Brandon Sample

In a March 29, 2011 five-to-four decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a former Louisiana prisoner who filed a § 1983 suit against Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry F. Connick, Sr., based upon admitted Brady errors. The Supreme Court’s decision reversed a jury award of $14 million to John Thompson, who had served 18 years in prison – including 14 on death row.

Thompson claimed that during his prosecution for attempted armed robbery, prosecutors failed to disclose evidence of his innocence as required under Brady. Thompson was found guilty on the armed robbery charge; he was later tried and convicted of murder stemming from an unrelated incident, and sentenced to death based on his tainted armed robbery conviction. Prosecutors later admitted that they failed to disclose the existence of a swatch of the robbery victim’s pants stained with the robber’s blood, which was type B.

According to the Supreme Court’s opinion, “there is no evidence that the prosecutors ever had Thompson’s blood tested or that they knew what his blood type was.”

One month before his scheduled execution, Thompson’s investigator discovered the undisclosed evidence from his armed robbery trial, and as a result both convictions were vacated.

According to the doctrine of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), prosecutors are obligated to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to defendants and their counsel in a timely fashion. District Attorney Connick admitted that the failure to produce the crime lab report “constituted a Brady violation.” In the lawsuit filed by Thompson after he was released, he alleged that the Brady violation was “caused by an unconstitutional policy of the district attorney’s office,” and that Connick’s “deliberate indifference” in failing to properly train his prosecutors to follow Brady was part of that policy. The jury agreed and awarded Thompson $14 million in damages; another $1 million in attorney’s fees and costs was added later. [See: PLN, Oct. 2007, p.22].

A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that “Connick was on notice of an obvious need for Brady training due to evidence “that attorneys, often fresh out of law school, would undoubtedly be required to confront Brady issues ... that erroneous decisions regarding Brady evidence would result in serious constitutional violations ... and that training [in] Brady would have been helpful.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.24].

The appellate court, sitting en banc, then vacated the panel decision but divided evenly, affirming the district court’s judgment. In its opinion, however, the Court of Appeals once again raised Connick’s argument that Thompson’s reliance on Brady liability “for failure to train the prosecutors, based upon a single Brady violation, without proving a prior pattern of similar violations...” might be problematic.

Connick again raised this argument in his petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a majority of the justices agreed with his reasoning. The Court cited Monell v. NYC Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), which states that plaintiffs who seek to impose liability on local governments under § 1983 must prove “action pursuant to official municipal policy” caused their injury.

The Supreme Court reasoned that in “limited circumstance, a local government’s decision not to train certain employees about their legal duty to avoid violating citizens’ rights may rise to the level of official government policy for purposes of § 1983.”

However, “a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is ordinarily necessary to demonstrate deliberate indifference for purposes of failure to train,” the Court emphasized. “Thompson does not contend that he proved a pattern of similar Brady violations.” According to the Supreme Court, Thompson relied instead on the “single incident liability” hypothetical set forth in Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989), where “in a narrow range of circumstances” a pattern of similar violations might not be necessary to show deliberate indifference.

The Court rejected Thompson’s application of Canton, stating that the “failure to train prosecutors in their Brady obligations does not fall within the narrow range of Canton’s ... single incident liability ... [because] legal training is what differentiates attorneys from average public employees.” Attorneys continue to train after graduation, and “also train on the job as they learn from more experienced attorneys, ... [and] must satisfy character and fitness standards to receive a law license.”

The Supreme Court noted that it did not assume that prosecutors would always make correct Brady decisions, but “showing merely that additional training would have been helpful in making difficult decisions does not establish municipal liability.”

In a strongly-worded dissent, Justice Ruth Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, disagreed with the majority’s assertion that “Thompson had shown only an aberrant Brady violation.” According to Ginsburg, “the trial record reveal[s] the conceded, long‑concealed prosecutorial transgressions were neither isolated nor atypical ... no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer’s misconduct.” As such, Ginsburg would have held that there was “deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney’s Office bears responsibility under [Section] 1983.”

Ginsburg wrote, “First, Connick admitted to the jury that his earlier understanding of Brady ... was too narrow.” Second, he “confessed to having withheld a crime lab report” and was indicted for doing so. Third, “even at trial [he] persisted in misstating Brady’s requirements.” Taking these and other errors into consideration, Connick should have known that his prosecutors lacked “essential guidance” on Brady, and should have realized that their Brady training was “inadequate,” Ginsburg said. Later District Attorneys noted that many felt they had not received the training they needed to properly do their jobs, and Ginsburg stated that “a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office.”Justice Ginsburg concluded by reiterating that the “duty to produce Brady evidence to the defense ... [is among] prosecutors’ unique ethical obligations,” saying that prosecutorial misconduct nearly cost an innocent man his life: “John Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them isolated on death row, before the truth came to light.”Prisoners’ rights groups were incensed by Justice Antonio Scalia’s concurring opinion in which he cited the 1988 case of Arizona v. Youngblood. Scalia and the other justices had sent the defendant in that case back to prison before new DNA tests revealed his innocence. After his release, police conducted more sophisticated DNA testing that identified the true perpetrator of the crime.

According to Keith Findley, president of the Innocence Network, prosecutors have “enormous power over all of our lives ... [yet] no other profession is shielded from this complete lack of accountability.”

The Supreme Court’s decision vacated the jury’s $14 million verdict in favor of Thompson. See: Connick, District Attorney v. Thompson, 131 S.Ct. 1350 (2011).

Additional sources: Seattle Post-Intelligencer,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Connick, District Attorney v. Thompson