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Supreme Court Rules Against Exonerated Inmate Awarded $14M in Damages

Posted Mar 29, 2011 10:04 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A death row inmate whose case may be portrayed in a film starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as his two lawyers has suffered a defeat in the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Thompson was seeking to uphold a $14 million judgment obtained after the New Orleans District Attorney’s office withheld exculpatory blood evidence in his trial for attempted armed robbery, leading to a conviction and ramifications in a later murder case. Thompson had maintained that New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick had failed to properly train prosecutors about their duty to disclose evidence that would be helpful to the defense.

In a 5-4 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the award, obtained under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion (PDF). A district attorney may not be held liable for a civil rights violation for failure to train prosecutors based on just one failure to disclose, Thomas wrote in Connick v. Thompson.

“A district attorney is entitled to rely on prosecutors’ professional training and ethical obligations in the absence of specific reason, such as a pattern of violations, to believe that those tools are insufficient,” Thomas said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, signaling a serious objection to the majority opinion, SCOTUSblog reported.

Thompson had opted not to testify in a later murder trial because of fears that the earlier conviction would be used to impeach him. He was convicted and he spent 18 years in prison until, one month before his scheduled execution, an investigator discovered the undisclosed blood evidence in the earlier case. Thompson’s pro bono lawyers from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius won a retrial on the murder charge and an acquittal.

Ginsburg's dissent was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. She highlighted Thompson's 18 years in prison and said requirements to turn over evidence that were established in Brady v. Maryland were dishonored in the case.

“As the trial record in the Section 1983 action reveals, the conceded, long-concealed prosecutorial transgressions were neither isolated nor atypical,” Ginsburg wrote. “From the top down, the evidence showed, members of the District Attorney’s Office, including the District Attorney himself, misperceived Brady’s compass and therefore inadequately attended to their disclosure obligations.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote a separate concurrence to address the dissenters. "The dissent’s lengthy excavation of the trial record is a puzzling exertion," he wrote.

Touchstone Pictures signed a deal to produce a movie on the case, according to stories about the film published in 2009. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon would play the lawyers, according to a New York Times overview.

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: "After Years, Even Decades, the Exonerated Leave Prison Walls Behind—Only to Find New Barriers"

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