(CN) - A district attorney's office cannot be held liable for failure to train prosecutors because of one example of misconduct that resulted in a man spending 18 years in prison, the conservative justices of the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, Tuesday.
A split panel of the 5th Circuit had affirmed a jury's award of $14 million to John Thompson against Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick. Thompson was released from prison, including 14 years on death row, when his defense team uncovered exculpatory evidence that prosecutors had withheld after charging him with murder and armed robbery in 1985. Such due process violations are known as Brady violations for the landmark 1963 case, Brady v. Maryland.
The court's four Democrat-appointed justices took a different view of the case.
"What happened here, the court's opinion obscures, was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer's misconduct," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, leading the dissent. "Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady's disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish."
Victims of a robbery fingered Thompson as their attacker after the man's arrest for the unrelated murder of Raymond Liuzza had made headlines in New Orleans.
Thompson was charged with robbery, but prosecutors never disclosed that they had tested a sample of the robber's blood, which had stained the clothes of one victim. They learned two days before the trial that the robber had type B blood. Thompson is type O, though there is no evidence that the prosecutors knew that.
After the blood-stained swatch disappeared on the way from the police property room to the courthouse property room, a jury convicted Thompson of armed robbery.
Thompson chose not to testify in his own defense because of the armed robbery conviction, and he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1987.
By 1994, Gerry Deegan, the assistant district attorney who tried Thompson for armed robbery, was dying of cancer and confessed to former district attorney Michael Riehlmann that he had suppressed exculpatory evidence. But Riehlmann never came forward with the confession, and Thompson did not learn about the misconduct until 1999 as he sat on death row. Thompson's private investigator uncovered a mention about the crime lab report in police records.
With the armed robbery conviction vacated, the Louisiana Court of Appeals reversed Thompson's murder conviction because Thompson had been unconstitutionally deprived of the chance to testify in his own defense at the murder trial. Thompson was retried for the murder in 2003 and found not guilty by a jury.
In Thompson's civil trial against the district attorney, a jury found that the office had failed to properly train prosecutors, but that there was no unconstitutional office policy that led to misconduct. Thompson won $14 million in damages, and his attorneys won $1 million for their fees.
The District Court rejected Connick's argument that Thompson had failed to present a pattern, and the 5th Circuit affirmed on appeal. The federal appeals panel later granted a rehearing and affirmed the District Court again when the judges were evenly divided. Supreme Court oral arguments occurred in October.
In reversing the award, the Supreme Court's majority found that Thompson never proved that the district attorney was deliberately indifferent to misconduct that could have been fixed with more or different prosecutorial training.
"Although Thompson does not contend that he proved a pattern of similar Brady violations, he points out that, during the ten years preceding his armed robbery trial, Louisiana courts had overturned four convictions because of Brady violations by prosecutors in Connick's office," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. "Those four reversals could not have put Connick on notice that the office's Brady training was inadequate with respect to the sort of Brady violation at issue here. None of those cases involved failure to disclose blood evidence, a crime lab report, or physical or scientific evidence of any kind. Because those incidents are not similar to the violation at issue here, they could not have put Connick on notice that's pecific training was necessary to avoid this constitutional violation."
Thomas added that attorneys receive ethics training from a wide range of sources, from law school professors to their colleagues. "But showing merely that additional training would have been helpful in making difficult decisions does not establish municipal liability," according to the 20-page majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito.
The 32-page dissent, authored by Ginsburg and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, states that Thompson deserved the $14 million "for the gross, deliberately indifferent, and long-continuing violation of his fair trial right."
"From the top down, the evidence showed, members of the district attorney's office, including the district attorney himself, misperceived Brady's compass and therefore inadequately attended to their disclosure obligations," wrote Ginsburg. "Throughout the pretrial and trial proceedings against Thompson, the team of four engaged in prosecuting him for armed robbery and murder hid from the defense and the court exculpatory information Thompson requested and had a constitutional right to receive. The prosecutors did so despite multiple opportunities, spanning nearly two decades, to set the record straight. Based on the prosecutors' conduct relating to Thompson's trials, a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the district attorney's office."
In a concurring opinion, joined by Alito, Scalia tackles why "[t]he dissent's lengthy excavation of the trial record is a puzzling exertion."
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