Center on the Administration of Criminal Law files amicus brief in Fifth Circuit civil rights appeal

On May 13, NYU Law’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law filed an amicus curiae brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the civil rights case of Thompson v. Connick. John Thompson was wrongly convicted in 1985 of both the murder of a New Orleans hotel executive and an unrelated armed carjacking, which was used by the prosecutors in the murder case. As a result of the convictions, Thompson was sentenced to death in the murder case, and to 50 years in prison without parole in the carjacking case.

"John Thompson spent 14 years on death row (and 18 years of wrongful imprisonment in total) for two crimes he did not commit, and was exonerated just weeks before his scheduled execution,” said Anthony Barkow, the Center’s executive director. “His prosecutions were scarred by nondisclosure of essential exculpatory information -- nondisclosure that resulted from the New Orleans' District Attorney's Office's deliberately indifferent failure to train, monitor, and supervise the prosecutors in that office. The Center is proud to file a brief in support of Mr. Thompson that highlights the importance of training prosecutors on their constitutional obligations."

Over the course of 15 years of post-conviction proceedings, attorneys from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius uncovered concealed blood evidence in the carjacking case, which proved that Thompson was not the carjacker, as well as witnesses, documents, and critical information that had been hidden from the defense in the murder case. Ultimately, after the carjacking conviction was vacated based on the blood evidence, a Louisiana appellate court ordered a new trial in the murder case. In May 2003, Thompson was retried and acquitted by a jury after just 35 minutes of deliberation. He was completely exonerated of all charges.

Thompson later won a jury verdict in a federal action for violation of his civil rights by the New Orleans' District Attorney's Office's for its deliberately indifferent failure to train the prosecutors in that office. The verdict was affirmed on appeal by a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit and is now before the entire Fifth Circuit.

The Center's brief highlights the importance of training prosecutors on their constitutional duties pursuant to the Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland, which requires the production of exculpatory evidence. The Fifth Circuit directed the parties to address whether it would be obvious to law-school educated, practicing criminal law attorneys that there was a Brady obligation to disclose the blood evidence to Thompson such that the district attorney could not be deliberately indifferent in failing to further train the prosecutors on the application of Brady

"The Center believes that developments over the last several years confirm that prosecutors need more training about Brady and the government's disclosure duties, not less," the brief states. "Thus, the Center's appearance as amicus curiae in this case is prompted by its concern that an affirmative answer to the court's question could be misconstrued as license to dispense with or deemphasize Brady-related training. The Center also believes that an affirmative answer may lead courts and prosecutors to overvalue what little information students glean about Brady and disclosure duties in law school, or happen to absorb from colleagues while 'on the job,' and come to see these as adequate substitutes for sustained and effective training. Thus, the Center believes that its basic mission to improve the performance of prosecutors through the promotion of effective training is at stake in this important appeal."

The brief was filed in partnership with the Law Offices of Martin J. Siegel.