Center on the Administration of Criminal Law wins amicus victory in Fifth Circuit

On August 11, NYU Law's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law won an amicus victory 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. He was sentenced to death in the murder case, and to 50 years in prison without parole in the carjacking case.

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 and was awarded $14 million 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.  The full court heard the appeal in May and was evenly divided, 8-8, automatically affirming the lower court's decision.

The Center's brief highlighted 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.

Judge Edward Prado, who authored the court's order to uphold the $14 million verdict, wrote that the appellate court must give deference to the jury's verdict, which will not subject other cities to "widespread liability" because it is such an extraordinary case.

"The dissent is merely quibbling with the jury's factual findings," Prado wrote. "This oversteps our bounds as an appellate court. The dissent presents nothing more than a skewed version of the facts in favor of the District Attorney's Office...these factual disputes were for the jury to resolve."

Writing in support of overturning the award, Chief Judge Edith Jones stressed that the "judgment raises issues that will continue to plague honest prosecutors' offices."

According to the Times-Picayune, New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro will seek a rehearing before the Fifth Circuit and will also look into appealing to the Supreme Court.

Posted on August 19, 2009