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in which justice is blind

March 30, 2011

The facts are these: lawyers in a district attorney's office fail to disclose exculpatory evidence in a capital murder case, despite a very clear obligation under the law to do so. Said failure leads to a death sentence for an innocent man. Due to the dogged work of his attorneys, the hidden evidence is discovered, as is the prosecutorial malfeasance. The aforementioned district attorney's office is sued for its failure to disclose exculpatory evidence and its failure to train its attorneys so that they knew they should disclose; that the attorneys already knew that they should do so and didn't because they wanted to win the case is apparently legally irrelevant. The plaintiff more or less wins at lower court levels, and then the case is taken up by the Supreme Court of the land. You'd think that this is an easy decision, wouldn't you? Clear (and admitted, mind you) prosecutorial malfeasance, a man nearly executed because of this misconduct. You'd think this would be an easy 9-0 decision in favor of the plaintiff, wouldn't you?

And you'd be wrong. So very very wrong.

Supreme Court: No damages for man wrongly sent to death row, Supreme Court rules - latimes.com

By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
March 29, 2011, 3:14 p.m.

A bitterly divided Supreme Court tossed out a jury verdict Tuesday won by a New Orleans man who spent 14 years on Death Row and came within weeks of execution because prosecutors had hidden a blood test and other evidence that would have proven his innocence.

The 5-4 decision delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas shielded the New Orleans District Attorney's office from being held liable for the mistakes of its prosecutors. The evidence of their misconduct did not prove "deliberate indifference" on the part of then-District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., Thomas said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized her disapproval by reading her dissent in the courtroom, saying the court was shielding a city and its prosecutors from "flagrant" misconduct that nearly cost an innocent man his life.

"John Thompson spent 14 years isolated on Death Row before the truth came to light," she said. He was innocent of the crimes that sent him to prison and prosecutors had "dishonored" their obligation to present the true facts to the jury, she said....

U.S. Supreme Court sides with Orleans Parish DA in appeal of $14 million judgment (nola.com, New Orleans Times-Picayune)
Published: Tuesday, March 29, 2011, 10:05 AM Updated: Tuesday, March 29, 2011, 5:55 PM

Staff writers Gordon Russell and Laura Maggi wrote this story.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who contended that his office should not have to pay a $14 million judgment awarded to former death row inmate John Thompson, who was wrongfully convicted of murder when prosecutors withheld evidence.

At a news conference with Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, Cannizzaro said the opinion "removes a dark cloud of uncertainty that was hanging over the district attorney's office when I arrived here in 2008." Cannizzaro noted that the judgment, which he estimated had grown to about $20 million with interest over the past four years, would have effectively shuttered the DA's office.

The court's opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who was joined by John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. At issue was whether the DA's office could be held liable for the actions of a couple of prosecutors who admittedly hid some blood evidence favorable to Thompson in an armed robbery case before taking him to trial for the 1984 murder of hotel executive Ray Liuzza during an Uptown stickup. Prosecutors typically enjoy immunity from such lawsuits, but a jury in 2007 sided with Thompson, who sued the DA's office for railroading him into death row via the purposely bungled robbery case. Then-District Attorney Eddie Jordan defended the civil case in federal court, but the Thompson prosecution was overseen by longtime Orleans Parish DA Harry Connick.

The decision by Thomas concluded that the DA's office could not be held responsible for failing to train prosecutors about their obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence based on a single case. It means that Thompson will not collect his award.

"I'm not worried about their money. I want them to be held accountable.'' Thompson said today in a news conference.

"I had sons who grew up without a father, who thought their father was a killer.'' [...]

I do not understand this decision. I do not even begin to understand this decision. I do not understand why it was required for the plaintiff to show a pattern of deliberate negligence and/or malfeasance in this and other cases -- which, by the by, they apparently did -- nor do I understand why the Court would choose to ignore that evidence to reach a decision that immunizes prosecutors against being liable for deliberate malfeasance. Quite honestly, give this specific case, it seems that it flies perilously close to actual depraved indifference -- and yes, I know that's a standard for evaluating whether a crime that incidentally or accidentally led to someone's death should be treated the same as deliberate murder. However, the quite deliberate misconduct by the Orleans Parrish prosecutors -- hiding blood tests, witness statements and other evidence in this and allegedly in other cases as well -- was something they clearly knew would lead not only to conviction for a crime which they knew the man had not committed, but should also lead to the death penalty for that crime. If deliberately concealing evidence that you know will cause someone to be killed by the state is not depraved indifference, then what is?

And yet, our Court of last resort feels that behavior like this should be, if not allowed (I will concede that they probably don't think that the prosecutors should have done this, and that if they do, they think the prosecution should at least have been competent enough not to get caught at it). I truly do not understand, on either the part of the plaintiff or the defendant, why the lack of training was a particular issue. Given normal legal education, the prosecuting attorneys should have known when they got out of law school that they had to hand over exculpatory evidence. Good lord, people who watch legal shows on television know that! (Yes, yes, I know, television typically gets quite a lot wrong about law, medicine and other complex issues ... but that one, they actually get right.) I can understand why you would immunize attorneys against most accidental failures of this sort -- if they didn't know the evidence existed for some reason, that would be one thing. Knowing that the evidence exists and hiding it from everyone should, on its face, be cause for liability to the fullest extent of the law (which, granted, in this case is nothing because according to the Court, the law is quite definitely an ass, but you get what I mean). It should also be cause for immediate disbarment, and possibly criminal charges. After all, they were trying to get this man killed. Granted, in a much different way than would ordinarily be envisioned by the law; that said, this is effectively hiring the state to be your hitman, isn't it? (Of course, a conspiracy to commit murder charge would never hold under these circumstances. After all, the jury could, at least in theory, have sentenced the man to life in prison. It does, however, seem a crystal-clear case of obstruction of justice.)

Something of a side note: as always, reading the actual decision (PDF) is vastly entertaining, for certain very grim values of entertainment. For example, the majority decision, authored by Justice Thomas, mentions "The nuance of the allegedly necessary training". I'm trying to figure out how one "nuances" the concept: You MUST turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defense. There just doesn't seem to be a lot of room for nuance there, does there? Seems pretty cut and dried and blunt, even. Another puzzling thing is that the state and the attorneys involved all concede that even without training, they knew perfectly well that they were required to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense, and didn't do so because they wanted to win the case. How deliberate misconduct at that level does not trigger some sort of liability, at the very least, and criminal prosecutions of those attorneys at the most, I simply do not understand.

There are times when I do not understand the way certain members of this Court think, and in what world and country they think they live, that principles like the ones they articulate in this case make even the vaguest sort of sense. This would be one of those times.

Posted by iain at March 30, 2011 12:54 PM







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