John Thompson spent 18 years in prison -- 14 of them on death row -- for crimes he did not commit. But as he was facing his seventh execution date, a private investigator hired by his lawyers discovered that scientific evidence of his innocence had been knowingly concealed by the New Orleans District Attorney's office.
Thompson was eventually exonerated. He sued the prosecutors' office, and won. A jury awarded him $14 million, one million for each year on death row. When Louisiana appealed, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the spring of 2011, in a controversial 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the prosecutor's office could not be held liable.
With Connick v. Thompson, the U.S. Supreme Court thus took away one of the only remaining means for the wrongfully convicted to hold prosecutors accountable for willful misconduct. The Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition charges that, "Although all other professionals, from doctors to airline pilots to clergy, can be held liable for their negligence, the Supreme Court has effectively given district attorney offices legal immunity for the actions of their assistants, even when an office is deliberately indifferent to its responsibility to disclose exculpatory evidence."
That decision simply strengthens the case being made by The Innocence Project and its colleagues: The Coalition says Texas prosecutors stand an excellent chance of getting away with prosecutorial misconduct that can send innocent men and women to prison for long sentences -- and even to death row -- according to new legal research.
Researchers found that, from 2004 to 2008, courts ruled that prosecutors committed error in 91 cases. Of these, the courts upheld the conviction in 72 of the cases, finding that the error was "harmless." In 19 of the cases, the court ruled that the error was "harmful" and reversed the conviction. From 2004 until November 2011, only one prosecutor was publicly disciplined by the Texas Bar Association, and this was from a case that arose before 2004.
The research was released in Austin by the Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition. It illustrates the lack of accountability and transparency for prosecutorial misconduct in Texas. The Austin event marks the second stop on a national tour organized by the coalition, which includes the death row exoneree John Thompson, who was stripped of $14 million in civil damages for prosecutorial misconduct by the U.S. Supreme Court in Connick v. Texas.
The Coalition includes the Innocence Project; the Veritas Initiative, Northern California Innocence Project's prosecutorial accountability program; the Innocence Project of New Orleans; Voices of Innocence; and local partners, the Texas Center for Actual Innocence; and the Actual Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.
"No one is disputing that prosecutors have tremendous responsibility, and the vast majority do a good job under difficult circumstances. But now that the Supreme Court has given prosecutors almost complete immunity for their actions, we need to develop systems of accountability for dealing with those prosecutors who violate their ethical obligations," said Jennifer Laurin, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas law school.
The Texas research was conducted by the Veritas Initiative, which issued a groundbreaking report on prosecutorial misconduct in California last year.
California's results were similar to those of Texas, buttressing the Innocence Project's belief that rogue prosecutors represent a national problem.