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Former death row inmate John Thompson speaks at a news conference in New Orleans, Tuesday, March 29, 2011, after the Supreme Court overturned a $14 million judgement that accused New Orleans prosecutors of withholding evidence in order to help convict Thompson of murder. Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of which were on death row, before he was exonerated in 2003. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON — An ideologically divided Supreme Court overturned a $14 million judgment given to a former death row inmate who was convicted of murder after New Orleans prosecutors withheld evidence in his trial.
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The court’s five conservative-leaning justices, in their first ideological victory of the year, said the New Orleans district attorney’s office should not be punished for not providing specific training to young prosecutors on Brady rights, which dictate when to turn over evidence to a suspect’s lawyer that could prove their innocence.

But in a rare oral dissent read directly from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that John Thompson deserved damages for “the gross, deliberately indifferent and long-continuing violation of his fair trial rights.”

Thompson, who at one point was only weeks away from being executed, successfully sued the prosecutor’s office in New Orleans, arguing former District Attorney Harry Connick showed deliberate indifference by not providing adequate training for assistant district attorneys.

Prosecutors did not turn over a crime lab report that indicated Thompson’s blood type did not match the perpetrator in an attempted robbery in 1985. Prosecutors used that conviction to get the death penalty in another case Thompson was involved in.

Prosecutors normally have immunity for their actions while working, but Thompson convinced a jury that the district attorney’s office had not trained its lawyers sufficiently on how to handle evidence. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was split evenly on appeal, which upheld the lower court verdict.

Brady rights are named after the Supreme Court’s Brady v. Maryland case, which says prosecutors violate a defendant’s constitutional rights by not turning over evidence that could prove a person’s innocence.

Lawyers are expected to know the law when they graduate law school and pass the bar exam, and undergo professional on-the-job training and continuing education afterward, Justice Clarence Thomas said. But Connick cannot be blamed for his lawyers’ deficiencies, he said.

“Prosecutors are not only equipped but are also ethically bound to know what Brady entails and to perform legal research when they are uncertain,” Thomas said. “A district attorney is entitled to rely on prosecutors’ professional training and ethical obligations in the absence of specific reason, such as a pattern of violations, to believe that those tools are insufficient to prevent future constitutional violations.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia joined with Thomas in his decision.

Ginsburg and the court’s left-leaning justices said Thompson deserved to win, however.

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“Ample evidence presented at the civil rights trial demonstrated that Connick’s deliberately indifferent attitude created a tinderbox in which Brady violations were nigh inevitable,” Ginsburg said.

She was joined in her dissent by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Thompson was convicted of attempted armed robbery in 1985, shortly before he was to stand trial in the unrelated case of the killing of Raymond Liuzza Jr. He did not testify during the murder trial. Prosecutors used Thompson’s conviction in the robbery case to help secure the death penalty in the Liuzza murder case.

In 1999, an investigator working on Thompson’s case discovered a crime lab report that prosecutors had not turned over, indicating Thompson’s blood type did not match the perpetrator in the attempted robbery.

A state appeals court set aside Thompson’s murder conviction in 2002 after deciding he’d been unconstitutionally deprived of his right to testify during the murder trial. That cleared the way for a new trial in which Thompson was acquitted.

He sued the district attorney’s office soon thereafter.

The problems were not in just the attempted robbery case, Ginsburg said. Thompson is 5-foot-8-inches tall and wore his hair in an Afro during the time of the murder.

“The prosecution in Thompson’s murder trial failed to produce a police report containing an eyewitness description of the murderer as six feet tall with close cropped hair,” Ginsburg said. … “No fewer than five prosecutors concealed, year upon year, this and other evidence vital to Thompson’s defense.”

Thompson was disappointed in the court’s decision, saying none of the prosecutors who handled his case had been disciplined. “I spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them in a cell waiting to be killed, because Harry Connick’s prosecutors covered up evidence in my case. I was delivered an execution warrant in my cell seven times,” he said.

Thompson got $150,000 in compensation from Louisiana, the maximum the state allows.

“My life was spared despite the efforts of many prosecutors from Harry Connick’s office who sought my conviction and execution over 18 years. They’re the criminals they made people believe I was,” he said.

The case is Connick v Thompson, 09-571.

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