The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to review Connick v. Thompson, a case involving prosecutorial misconduct in a death penalty trial according to Professional Responsibility. Actually, the appeal is a civil case where the former criminal defendant was awarded $14 million dollars plus attorney fees (approximately $1 million) for his wrongful conviction and death sentence.
The misconduct? Failure to disclose evidence pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, of course. From the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit:
After a jury trial lasting several days, the jury determined that the DA’s Office was deliberately indifferent to the need to train, monitor, and supervise its attorneys on Brady principles.
That pretty much sums it all up, in my opinion: failure to supervise. Criminal law is serious business and the folks prosecuting these cases need to take it seriously. It’s not a game and they are not on the high school year book club. Life and liberty are at stake, not to mention that prosecutors are ministers of justice – not someone looking to win at all costs. Here is a quick lesson on ethics for those who haven’t been trained.
This case didn’t merely involve simple carelessness or even indifference. John Thompson was factually innocent and the prosecutors willfully withheld exculpatory evidence. As a result, Thompson spent almost twenty years on death row.
Here’s what happened. Thompson was arrested on two unrelated charges: Murder and armed robbery. The prosecutor hid blood evidence in the armed robbery case that would have exonerated Thompson. Then the prosecutor switched the order of the trials. The armed robbery was tried first and Thompson was convicted. This was a strategic decision to keep Thompson off the witness stand as well as evidence of aggravation at the sentencing phase in the death case. It was outrageous and unethical. And it worked.
It worked until Thompson’s investigators found the evidence – one month before the execution date. It gets worse. Turns out that the former prosecutor was diagnosed with cancer and learned he had only months to live. He confessed his sins to his friend who was also a former prosecutor. This friend did nothing with the confession until after the evidence was found. The question I have is would this former prosecutor have kept this information a secret if the blood evidence had not been found? Would another innocent man have been executed?
Something has to be done about prosecutors failing to disclose evidence. It seems to be a common event now. Every time I have a serious trial scheduled to start on Monday, I always get some new discovery from the prosecutor on Friday – even though the case is two or three years old.
I don’t think this case will settle like Pottawattamie did recently and I look forward to the Supreme Court’s decision. Prosecutors will argue immunity, but that is a pretty weak argument for intentionally violating someone’s constitutional rights.
One other thought. Some prosecutors like to comment on the defendant with no prior record that he just hadn’t been caught before. Well, I wonder how many other prosecutorial misconduct cases are out there that haven’t been caught yet.