John Thompson died early this month of a heart attack at the age of 55. He had spent 14 years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a crime he didn’t commit, an additional four years in prison for an armed robbery he didn’t commit, and after finally being acquitted, spent the last 14 years helping others who had been wrongly accused and imprisoned.
Thompson was convicted and sent to death row for the murder of Ray Liuzza, Jr. in New Orleans in 1985. He was 22 years old. Maintaining his innocence from the beginning, he was one month away from his scheduled execution when, according to NOLA.com, “a private investigator uncovered DNA evidence that had been hidden by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and Mr. Thompson was granted an appeal.”
He was taken off death row when his armed robbery conviction was thrown out, and acquitted of the murder charge — the jury deliberated for 30 minutes — and released in 2003.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, Thompson asked for an investigation into the prosecutors who hid the evidence that proved his innocence. “I feel like the victim of an attempted murder where everyone knows who was responsible and no one has seen fit to hold them accountable,” he wrote. “I can only assume that it is because I was a poor Black man and they were white men and women; colleagues and friends of those who could hold them accountable. . . I am many things, but after the wrongful torture and near-execution that the criminal justice system recklessly subjected me to, I do not think of myself as an ‘exoneree.’ I think of myself as a victim.”
Thompson sued prosecutors in federal court in 2007, and a New Orleans jury awarded him $14 million, one million for every year he had spent in isolation on death row. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment (twice), but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed it in a 5-4 decision (Connick v. Thompson). He was subsequently awarded $330,000 by the state.
The Supreme Court’s decision shocked Thompson. He told the New York Times, “If I’d spilled hot coffee on myself, I could have sued the person who served me the coffee . . . but I can’t sue the prosecutors who nearly murdered me.”
Undaunted, however, Thompson founded a nonprofit, Resurrection After Exoneration, in New Orleans to house, help, and find training and employment for former inmates who were also wrongly convicted. “Men come home, and the system has nothing in place to help them put their lives back together,” the Washington Post quoted him as saying. “They need to be reprogrammed because the survival tactics they learned in prison don’t work in the outside world.”
John Thompson was robbed of 18 years of his life, and of the compensation a jury and a federal court ruled he was entitled to, but that a bare majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, split among the five conservative and the four liberal justices, denied him in what Dahlia Lithwick in Slate called a “deliberately callous” decision. He never forgave the legal system, but he didn’t let what it had done to him destroy him, either. He only lived for 14 years after being released, but he spent those years honorably, and productively, a living reproach to those who had wronged him so egregiously.