John Thompson and his 14 years on death row, before being recognized innocent: “The prosecution rests, but I can’t”.
New York Times / International
The Prosecution Rests, but I Can’t
By JOHN THOMPSON *
Published: April 9, 2011 New York Times - 29.4.11 International Herald Tribune
I SPENT 18 years in prison for robbery and murder, 14 of them on death row.
I’ve been free since 2003, exonerated after evidence covered up by prosecutors
surfaced just weeks before my execution date.
Those prosecutors were never punished. Last month, the Supreme Court
decided 5-4 to overturn a case I’d won against them and the district attorney who
oversaw my case, ruling that they were not liable for the failure
to turn over that evidence — which included proof that blood at the robbery
scene wasn’t mine.
Because of that, prosecutors are free to do the same thing to someone else
I was arrested in January 1985 in New Orleans. I remember the police coming
to my grandmother’s house — we all knew it was the cops because of how hard
they banged on the door before kicking it in.
My grandmother and my mom were there, along with my little brother and sister,
my two sons — John Jr., 4, and Dedric, 6 — my girlfriend and me. The officers
had guns drawn and were yelling. I guess they thought they were coming for a
murderer. All the children were scared and crying. I was 22.
They took me to the homicide division, and played a cassette tape on which
a man I knew named Kevin Freeman accused me of shooting a man. He had also been
arrested as a suspect in the murder. A few weeks earlier he had sold me a ring
and a gun; it turned out that the ring belonged to the victim and the gun was
the murder weapon.
My picture was on the news, and a man called in to report that I looked
like someone who had recently tried to rob his children. Suddenly I was accused
of that crime, too. I was tried for the robbery first. My lawyers never knew
there was blood evidence at the scene, and I was convicted based on the
After that, my lawyers thought it was best if I didn’t testify at the murder
trial. So I never defended myself, or got to explain that I got the ring and
the gun from Kevin Freeman. And now that I officially had a history of violent
crime because of the robbery conviction, the prosecutors used it to get the
I remember the judge telling the courtroom the number of volts of electricity
they would put into my body. If the first attempt didn’t kill me, he said,
they’d put more volts in.
On Sept. 1, 1987, I arrived on death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary
— the infamous Angola prison. I was put in a dead man’s cell. His things were
still there; he had been executed only a few days before. That past summer they
had executed eight men at Angola. I received my first execution date right
before I arrived. I would end up knowing 12 men who were executed there.
Over the years, I was given six execution dates, but all of them were delayed
until finally my appeals were exhausted. The seventh — and last — date was set
for May 20, 1999. My lawyers had been with me for
11 years by then; they flew in from Philadelphia to give me the news.
They didn’t want me to hear it from the prison officials. They said itwould
take a miracle to avoid this execution. I told them it was fine — I was
innocent, but it was time to give up.
But then I remembered something about May 20. I had just finished reading
a letter from my younger son about how he wanted to go on his senior class
trip. I’d been thinking about how I could find a way to
pay for it by selling my typewriter and radio. “Oh, no, hold on,” I said,
“that’s the day before John Jr. is graduating from high school.” I begged them
to get it delayed; I knew it would hurt him.
To make things worse, the next day, when John Jr. was at school, his teacher
read the whole class an article from the newspaper about my execution. She
didn’t know I was John Jr.’s dad; she was just trying to teach them a lesson
about making bad choices. So he learned that his father was going to be killed
from his teacher, reading the newspaper aloud. I panicked. I needed to talk to
him, reassure him.
Amazingly, I got a miracle. The same day that my lawyers visited, an investigator
they had hired to look through the evidence one last time found, on some
forgotten microfiche, a report sent to the prosecutors on the blood type of the
perpetrator of the armed robbery. It didn’t match mine; the report, hidden for
15 years, had never been turned over to my lawyers. The investigator later
found the names of witnesses and police reports from the murder case that
hadn’t been turned over either.
As a result, the armed robbery conviction was thrown out in 1999, and I
was taken off death row. Then, in 2002, my murder conviction was thrown out. At
a retrial the following year, the jury took only 35 minutes to acquit me.
The prosecutors involved in my two cases, from the office of the Orleans
Parish district attorney, Harry Connick Sr., helped to cover up 10 separate
pieces of evidence. And most of them are still able to practice law today.
Why weren’t they punished for what they did? When the hidden evidence first
surfaced, Mr. Connick announced that his office would hold a grand jury
investigation. But once it became clear how many people had been involved, he
called it off.
In 2005, I sued the prosecutors and the district attorney’s office for what
they did to me. The jurors heard testimony from the special prosecutor who had
been assigned by Mr. Connick’s office to the canceled investigation, who told
them, “We should have indicted these guys, but they didn’t and it was wrong.”
The jury awarded me $14 million in damages — $1 million for every year on death
row — which would have been paid by the district attorney’s office. That jury verdict
is what the Supreme Court has just overturned.
I don’t care about the money. I just want to know why the prosecutors who
hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me
killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them,
no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court,
no one can be sued.
Worst of all, I wasn’t the only person they played dirty with. Of the six
men one of my prosecutors got sentenced to death, five eventually had their
convictions reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Because we were sentenced to death, the courts had to appoint us lawyers
to fight our appeals. I was lucky, and got lawyers who went to extraordinary
lengths. But there are more than 4,000 people serving life without parole in
Louisiana, almost none of whom have lawyers after their convictions are final.
Someone needs to look at those cases to see how many others might be innocent.
If a private investigator hired by a generous law firm hadn’t found the
blood evidence, I’d be dead today. No doubt about it.
A crime was definitely committed in this case, but not by me.
*John Thompson is the director of Resurrection After Exoneration, a support
group for exonerated inmates.