A death row exoneree calls on DOJ to investigate New Orleans prosecutors for misconduct

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A man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in New Orleans, and served 18 years, 14 on death row, in Angola State Prison before being freed, filed a petition earlier this month asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate what he describes as “a disturbing pattern of lawlessness, corruption and prosecutorial misconduct by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s
Office.”

John Thompson is asking the department’s Civil Rights Division to review all cases handled by former Assistant DA James Williams during the tenure of District Attorney Harry Connick.

Thompson was 22 years old when he was arrested, with another man, for killing a New Orleans businessman in 1985. He was convicted based on false testimony from his co-defendant. Because of a previous (wrongful) conviction for an armed robbery, he was sentenced to death. After he had exhausted all appeals in 1999, his pro bono attorneys, Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney, hired an investigator who found paperwork, evidence not revealed during the trial, that showed Thompson was not involved in the armed robbery. After that evidence was presented, the trial court dismissed the armed robbery charges. He was retried on murder charges in 2003, but, because he could testify on his own behalf since the robbery conviction had been dismissed and thanks to new, previously suppressed evidence, Thompson was acquitted by a jury that took 30 minutes to deliberate.

Thompson sued prosecutors in federal court in 2007, and a New Orleans jury awarded him $14 million dollars, one million for every year he had spent on death row. The Fifth Circuit upheld the judgment, 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.

Thompson believes that as egregious as his case was, it was not an anomaly. “There was a culture of hiding evidence and cheating in the District Attorney’s Office in New Orleans that spread over several decades,” Thompson says in his letter to the DOJ. “According to the National Registry of Exonerations, New Orleans has the highest per capita rate of proven wrongful convictions of any jurisdiction over 300,00 in the country.”

Thompson’s point is clear: as a man who was wrongfully accused and imprisoned, he is not an “exoneree,” he is a victim. “When we suffer such violations of the law we are victims — but no one recognizes us as such because the perpetrators worked for the government . . . .
I am a victim of torture and attempted murder . . . . No one has been brought to justice for what happened to me, to the scores of others in Louisiana like me and to the thousands of people around the country who have been exonerated . . . . Even though the record of the misconduct by Connick’s prosecutors in my case was clear, no one has done a thing about it or tried to bring them to justice.”

Thompson’s 29-page petition ends by saying the DOJ “should exercise the power vested in it by Congress . . . to institute an investigation into the likely continuing effects of the pattern and practice of unconstitutional misconduct within the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office including but not limited to securing a list of every conviction secured by Jim Williams while he was a prosecutor [at the DA’s office] to assess the integrity of those convictions.”

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