Tuesday, March 29 marked the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Connick v. Thompson, a case involving John Thompson, who was convicted in Louisiana in 1984 for robbery and murder that he did not commit. After being prosecuted for the robbery, the district attorney was able to secure the death penalty for Thompson’s murder charge. While Thompson was at the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola facing his seventh execution date, his appellate attorneys hired a private investigator that discovered scientific evidence suggesting he was innocent of the robbery. That evidence had been concealed by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office for 15 years.
After spending 18 years in prison, 14 of them in solitary confinement on death row, Thompson was exonerated of both crimes in 2003. When he was released, he was given $10 and a bus ticket from the state of Louisiana. Thompson subsequently sued the district attorney’s office and was awarded $14 million for his years spent on death row. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court after the state appealed the $14 million verdict. A decision was reached in Connick v. Thompson on March 29, 2011 with Justice Clarence Thomas presenting the 5-4 majority opinion. The Court granted prosecutors broad immunity for their misconduct after ruling that the district attorney’s office could not be held liable. This ruling voided the hefty award given by the jury to Thompson.
The Innocence Project, the Veritas Initiative at Santa Clara University, Innocence Project New Orleans, and Resurrection After Exoneration formed the Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition following the Supreme Court’s decision. The purpose of the coalition focused on prosecutorial error and misconduct and the many instances in which no one was seemingly being held accountable for those actions.
The Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition released a report this year on the anniversary of the Connick v. Thompson decision, titled Prosecutorial Oversight: A National Dialogue in the Wake of Connick v. Thompson. The report, which calls for greater prosecutor transparency and accountability, details the coalition’s original research findings. Over a five-year time span, the coalition reviewed court findings of misconduct for five geographically diverse states, including California, Arizona, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York. Likely an undercount due to the difficulty of identifying this type of behavior, they documented 660 findings of misconduct.
The coalition also assembled a number of forums in those five states with panelists from all facets of the criminal justice system in order to start a meaningful dialogue about the issue and to suggest system recommendations that would promote more accountability. Highlights from those forums were also included in the report. Current and former prosecutors, ethics professors, members of state bar disciplinary committees, exonerees, defense lawyers, and judges all participated in the forums.
The report’s recommendations, which are geared towards prosecutors, courts, state lawmakers, and state bar oversight entities, were greatly influenced by the forum discussions.