Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Supreme Court shows Deliberate Indifference to Justice

Imagine that you were locked up behind bars for 18 years and sentenced to death row for a crime you didn't commit all because a corrupted prosecutor's office intentionally hid evidence during your trial that they knew would have set you free.  Now imagine that, by nothing short of a miracle, you manage to find this evidence a few weeks before your execution, get a full pardon from prison, hire a lawyer, successfully sue the pants off the prosecutor's office for hiding the evidence in the first place but then your case is tossed out by the Supreme Court of the United States - not because they disagree that the prosecutor's office hid evidence (in fact all 9 justices agree on that point) - but instead they toss your case out because, in their divine judicial opinion, they don't see any "pattern" of the prosecutor's office doing this to other people besides you (because one life ruined is apparently not enough).  Sounds like a John Grisham novel with a bad ending, right?  If only that were so.  Unfortunately, this is the true life story of what happened to John Thompson in this week's Supreme Court case Connick v. Thompson.  We will break down how the majority opinion of the Court (authored by Clarence Thomas...go figure) gets it wrong after the jump.

As mentioned above, this majority opinion is authored by Clarence Thomas and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Justice Alito and Justice Kennedy, otherwise known as the conservative-voting-block of the Supreme Court.   Under this conservative-voting-block, the Court has voted 5 to 4 in every major case to support "the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff."  (See Jeffrey Toobin, May 25, 2009 New Yorker).   In other words, if you were wrongly convicted of a crime in America, you would NOT want your case going before this Supreme Court.

As many of you may know, Justice Thomas has a 5 year record for never asking a single question while the cases are argued in front of the Court, which implies many things (none of them positive) about his ability to properly analyze legal arguments.   Moreover, it is important to observe that Justice Thomas is THE most Conservative Justice on the United States Supreme Court - even more so than Justices Scalia or Chief Justice Roberts.  The reason why this is worth noting is because Thomas' extremely conservative judicial philosophy (known as "strict constructionism") puts him so far to the Right of the Court that he has become one of the most dissenting Justices in Supreme Court history.  That means he rarely writes a majority opinion on behalf of the Court that actually ends up becoming law like he did here (note: dissenting opinions have no legal authority). After reviewing the reasoning in this case, it is not difficult to see why that is.

As a side note, it is also very interesting that this case, which is about the blatant misconduct of the prosecutor's office, has the Supreme Court's only former prosecutor, Justice Sotomayor, siding with the dissent who feel that the victim's case against the prosecutor's office should not have been tossed out.

You may be surprised to know that a prosecutor is actually duty bound to seek justice, not convictions.  The Rules of Professional Conduct governing prosecutors are clear on this point.  What that means in practical terms is that if a prosecutor knows that you are innocent, then they must drop the case.  Moreover, if a prosecutor comes across evidence that might help your case, no matter how small it is, they must disclose that information to you and to the Court.  This is what is known as the "Brady" rule, named after the landmark case Brady v. Maryland.  In other words, prosecutors are not allowed to do what they did in this case to John Thompson.

You can get the full story HERE, but to briefly recap the relevant facts, John Thompson (pictured right), a Black man living in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1984, was arrested for the armed robbery of three siblings.  During that robbery, the siblings struggled with the perpetrator and the perpetrator's blood stained the oldest sibling's pant leg.  The perpetrator's blood type was B.  Thompson's blood type is O.  The prosecutors not only failed to mention this fact during Thompson's trial, but they went a step further and hid the evidence in the police lab from Thompson's lawyer who specifically requested it.

A few weeks before the robbery incident, a Black male gunman murdered the son of a prominent New Orleans business executive.  The only eye witness reported seeing a Black man fleeing the scene who was 6 feet tall with close cut hair.  Thompson is 5 foot 8 inches tall and wore an afro at the time this crime occurred.  After receiving a tip from somebody seeking the $15,000 in reward money offered by the victim's family, the prosecutor's office blamed the murder on Thompson but failed to disclose to the Court (or to Thompson's lawyer) the eye-witness evidence about the hair style of the actual assailant.

There were a total of 5 prosecutors who were involved with the prosecution of Thompson in both the robbery and murder trials.  The prosecutor's office strategically decided to try Thompson for the robbery first (even though it actually happened after the murder) so that Thompson would have a conviction already on his record by the time the murder trial began, thereby ensuring that Thompson would not take the stand in his own defense for fear of his credibility being impeached due to the robbery conviction.  Their plan worked: Thompson was convicted of both the robbery and then the murder trial where he was sentenced to death. Between both trials, a total of 10 exhibits that would have proved Thompson's evidence were hidden from the Court and from Thompson's lawyer by the 5 prosecutors.

18 years and several appeals later, a private investigator was hired as a final hail mary a few weeks before Thompson was to be executed.  Through his efforts, the investigator found the missing blood stain evidence among a host of other things the prosecutor's office had covered up. (that guy deserves a bonus right?)  Thompson presented this evidence to the court and his execution was immediately canceled.  The District Attorney in Orleans Parish, a real piece of work named Harry F. Connick, decided to retry Thompson's murder trial instead of letting him go.  Given this new evidence, the jury only deliberated for 35 minutes before returning a unanimous "not guilty" verdict.

After Thompson got out, he brought a Civil Rights suit against the prosecutor's office for $14 Million in federal court for committing a "Brady" violation in his case which deprived him of his Constitutional rights.  He won.  The prosecutor's office appealed up to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Thompson won again.  The prosecutor's office then appealed up to the SCOTUS and the SCOTUS, which could have easily opted not to take the case and let Thompson enjoy his $14 Million, decided to take the case and throw Thompson's law suit out.

What makes Justice Thomas' argument so bizarre in this case is that he starts off by conceding that the prosecutor's office committed a "Brady" violation.  Given this fact, it is difficult to follow his mental gymnastics from (1) admitting that an injustice has occurred to (2) concluding that the highest court in the land is powerless to do anything about it.  He basically argues that the Civil Rights statute that Thompson sued under, 42 U.S.C. §1983, requires Thompson to prove that the prosecutor's office showed a "deliberate indifference" to following the "Brady" rule,  which, in layman's terms, means that Thompson would have to show a pattern of "Brady" violations by the prosecutor's office in order to win his lawsuit.  Thompson's one case is not enough, according to Justice Thomas.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissenting opinion from the Court bench, which is a rare Supreme Court Justice way of saying "school is now in session."  She pointed out to her colleagues on the Court that if it's a pattern they're looking for, then they should open their eyes to the fact that not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, but 5 prosecutors knew about the hidden evidence in this case and said nothing about it for 18 years.  Thus, this can hardly be described as an isolated incident.  She goes on to bolster the pattern theory by pointing out that the head prosecutor in this particular office, Harry F. Connick, was indicted in a completely unrelated case for suppressing evidence in clear violation of the "Brady" rule.  Moreover, she further points out that there is a Supreme Court precedent (Canton v. Harris) that carves out an exception to the "pattern" rule whenever a single case is "so obvious."  In sum, Justice Ginsburg beat Justice Thomas on the law and on the facts.

This case is a shamefully missed opportunity for the Supreme Court to set a policy that would send a message loud and clear that those who are entrusted with the great responsibility to prosecute the people of the United States can not and will not be allowed to abuse their power.  Instead, due to Justice Thomas' strict construction philosophy, which rewards robot-like thinking over practical thinking (making it virtually impossible to see the most obvious forms of discrimination or injustice), that opportunity was lost.  A man came before the Supreme Court seeking justice after losing 18 years of his life and coming within weeks of his execution.  Supporting him should have been obvious.  However, instead of taking notice and making a pledge that a tragedy like this will never happen again, Justice Thomas and crew thought that the better response was to tell this man that there haven't been enough tragedies like his for the nation's highest Court to give a damn.  Talk about "deliberate indifference."

Did the Court get this one right?
Who had the better argument between Thomas and Ginsburg?
Had John Thompson been White (assuming the descriptions of the attackers were also White), would the outcome have been different with the Supreme Court?
Does this case provide a clear enough example on why the U.S. should place a national ban on the Death Penalty?
blog comments powered by Disqus