U.S. Supreme Court to review $14 million judgment against New Orleans DA's office

The Associated Press, March 22, 2010

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear the appeal of the verdict by the DA's office.The U.S. Supreme Court will consider a New Orleans prosecutors' appeal of a $14 million judgment to a former death row inmate who accused them of withholding evidence to help convict him of murder.

The court said Monday it will get involved in a case that divided the federal appeals court in New Orleans 8 to 8.

At issue is whether the New Orleans district attorney's office can be held liable for the actions of prosecutors in the case of John Thompson. He spent 18 years in prison and once came within weeks of being executed before he was acquitted in a 2003 retrial in the killing of a hotel executive.

The district attorney's office does not contest that its prosecutors withheld a crime lab report favorable to Thompson. But prosecutors ordinarily may not be sued for their official actions.

The high court underscored that point last year when it held that a California man who spent 24 years in prison after being wrongly convicted could not sue the former Los Angeles district attorney.

The Supreme Court also has approved only narrow instances in which local government agencies can be sued for the wrongdoing of their rank-and-file employees. In this case, a jury awarded Thompson $14 million because it said the New Orleans district attorney failed to train its employees about turning over evidence.

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 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 the new trial in which Thompson was acquitted.

After Thompson's acquittal, he sued the district attorney's office that was led at the time of his 1985 conviction by Harry Connick, alleging that evidence had been wrongfully withheld.

The current Orleans Parish District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, has said the judgment is roughly equal to his office's annual operating budget and would have "devastating" financial consequences.

The case will be argued in the fall.

The case is Connick v. Thompson, 09-571.