The Supreme Court agreed this morning to rule on a Louisiana dispute that could be an important test of prosecutorial immunity in a death penalty case.
In Connick v. Thompson, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed a lower court verdict that awarded accused murderer John Thompson $14 million for the district attorney's failure to train its lawyers about so-called Brady violations, a failure that led to his wrongful conviction and death sentence in 1985.
Current Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizaro Jr. appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, asserting that upholding the 5th Circuit's decision "exposes district attorney's offices to vicarious liability for a wide range of prosecutorial misconduct."
The National District Attorneys' Association filed a brief also expressing concern that liability based on a single failure-to-train claim create the "alarming prospect" that the strong tradition of prosecutorial immunity will be eroded.
Thompson was accused of an unrelated armed robbery in addition to murder in the 1984 death of Raymond Liuzza Jr. The armed robbery trial preceded the murder trial, and prosecutors hoped a conviction in the first case would preclude Thompson from testifying in his murder trial. Thompson's lawyers later learned that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence in the robbery trial that the perpetrator had a different blood type from Thompson's. He was found guilty of robbery and did not testify at his murder trial. Thompson's lawyers claim the prosecutors' failure to reveal the evidence -- a violation of prosecutors' obligation under Brady v. Maryland -- deprived him of the right to testify in his murder trial. Lower courts agreed and a trial ensued that resulted in the jury award against the prosecutor.
The Supreme Court faced a major prosecutorial misconduct case earlier in the term -- Pottawattamie County v. McGhee -- but the parties reached a settlement after oral argument, removing the case from the docket. The case granted today will be argued in the fall. More about today's high court action later on BLT.