WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court on Wednesday considered whether a New Orleans district attorney could be held liable for failing to train junior prosecutors in his office who withheld exculpatory evidence in a murder case.
John Thompson sat on death row for 14 years before his investigators uncovered exculpatory evidence that had been suppressed by prosecutors in the office of District Attorney Harry Connick a few weeks before Thompson’s scheduled execution date.
Gordon Cooney, Thompson’s attorney, said Connick was guilty of deliberate indifference for failing to train prosecutors against violating Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 Supreme Court decision that held that withholding exculpatory evidence violated due process.
Stuart Duncan, Connick’s attorney, said Connick could not be held liable because there was no pattern of Brady violations in the office.
Duncan acknowledged that deliberate indifference could be found in a single incident case, as in City of Canton v. Harris. But, they argued that while in Canton, it is obvious that police officers should be trained about when to use deadly force, prosecutors are assumed to be armed with legal judgment, where it’s harder to establish a failure to train.
“It’s not clear at all,” Duncan said.
Duncan said it was impossible to define what training measures would prevent a Brady violation from occurring.
Cooney argued that Duncan was trying to establish a situation in which a civil rights victim could only establish deliberate indifference of a district attorney with a “prior significant history” of prosecutors violating constitutional rights with Brady violations.
Cooney said Connick’s disclosure policy was to turn over what the law required and nothing more, leading prosecutors to believe that they only had to turn over something that “screamed exculpatory evidence” on its face.
When justices asked Cooney exactly what training was missing in Connick’s office, he cited training that informed prosecutors of their Brady obligation, how to go about fulfilling the obligation, and the importance of safeguarding the innocent.
The justices were unsatisfied with Cooney’s suggested training regimen, and also said that the evidence had been tested and made available to the defense attorneys, so it wasn’t just put in the “hip pocket” of the prosecutor.
Cooney insisted that the defense never knew of its existence.
The case is 09-571, Connick v. Thompson.