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US Supreme Court overturns $15M jury award to citizen wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years

In Connick v. Thompson, the Supreme Court reversed both the federal district court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to hold that a District Attorney could not be held liable for failure to train his prosecutors regarding their obligation to turn over exonerating evidence to defense attorneys.  In a 5 to 4 decision divided on ideological lines, the Court held that, in order to recover damages for civil rights violations by prosecutors, plaintiffs must demonstrate a “pattern of violations” similar to the violations that are the subject of their case.  This holding will make it much more difficult for victims to be compensated for wrongs committed against them by municipalities.

Background Facts in Thompson

            In two separate trials in 1985, Thompson was convicted of armed robbery and murder in the Orleans Parish of Louisiana.  The robbery conviction came first, and Thompson thus did not testify in his own murder trial because the robbery conviction destroyed his credibility.  Thompson was sentenced to death.  He spent 18 years in prison – 14 of them isolated on death row – when, as Justice Ginsberg noted, the “truth came to light.” Thompson was exonerated just weeks before his scheduled execution because of a revelation that the prosecution conducted fundamentally unfair trials in both the armed robbery case and the murder case against him.  Specifically, the prosecution deliberately withheld exonerating evidence from the defense in violation of longstanding Supreme Court precedent.

The prosecution admitted to withholding exonerating evidence for over twenty years – a “Brady” violation (named after the Supreme Court case establishing the rule).  In the armed robbery case, the prosecution possessed fabric from one of the victim’s clothing that was stained with the perpetrator’s blood – the crime lab report concluded the blood did not match Thompson’s.  In the murder case, the prosecution withheld police reports containing eyewitness accounts of the murder stating that the murderer looked nothing like Thompson.  Prosecutors also withheld evidence that their key informant accepted bribe money from the victim’s family in exchange for testimony.

After having the armed robbery charges dismissed and being found not guilty in a retrial for murder, Thompson filed a suit against the former District Attorney of the Orleans Parish, Harry Connick Sr.  Thompson alleged that Connick’s failure to train prosecutors regarding their obligations to provide exonerating evidence to defense counsel meant that his office should be liable for the harms that Thompson suffered.  A jury determined that Connick was liable and awarded Thompson $14 million in damages – one for each year of his wrongful incarceration – while the judge tacked on an additional $1 million in attorney’s fees and costs.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s judgment, holding that Thompson demonstrated the District Attorney’s office knew to a “moral certainty” that:  1) assistant district attorneys would acquire evidence favorable to the defense; 2) without training it is not always obvious what the law requires of prosecutors; and 3) withholding exonerating material virtually always leads to a substantial violation of constitutional rights.  Connick appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court’s Analysis

The issue before the Court was whether Connick’s failure-to-train the prosecutors amounted to “deliberate indifference” to Thompson’s rights.  While the jury and the lower courts determined that there was ample evidence to conclude that Connick’s conduct was indeed deliberately indifferent to Thompson’s rights, Justice Thomas and the Supreme Court majority overruled the lower courts.  Justice Thomas stated that “a municipality’s culpability for a depravation of rights is at its most tenuous where a claim turns on failure-to-train”, and determined that a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is “ordinarily necessary” to demonstrate deliberate indifference for failure-to-train.  However, Justice Thomas’s opinion suggests that “similar violations” actually means “violations that are exactly the same” because Louisiana courts had overturned four cases coming out of Connick’s office in the ten years preceding Thompson’s robbery trial due to prosecutors withholding exonerating evidence.  According to Justice Thomas, since none of those violations involved blood evidence or crime lab reports specifically, they were not similar to the violations in Thompson’s case and thus could not have put Connick on notice of the need to train his prosecutors.

While showing a pattern of similar violations is “ordinarily necessary”, the Court had previously ruled that when a constitutional violation is the “obvious” consequence of a failure-to-train in a particular area, then deliberate indifference may be shown for singular violations.  The majority averred that because lawyers are trained in the application of the law during law school, a district attorney is entitled to rely on this professional training as sufficient to prevent constitutional violations.  Connick and his team admitted that they were misinformed about how to properly address and apply Supreme Court precedent mandating that exonerating evidence be provided to the defense, but this reason apparently was not specific enough.  Moreover, the fact that up to five prosecutors were involved in the nondisclosure of the crime lab report and other evidence during both of Thompson’s trials also did not indicate to the majority that there was a specific reason not to rely on outside training.  Justice Ginsberg felt strongly to the contrary, and stated that “the majority’s suggestion that lawyers do not need Brady training because they ‘are equipped with the tools to find, interpret, and apply legal principles,’ blinks reality and is belied by the facts of this case.”

What Does Connick v. Thompson Mean for Future Civil Rights Cases?

            Justice Thomas’ and Scalia’s treatment of the “deliberate indifference” standard could significantly affect victims’ ability to rectify civil rights damages in a broad range of cases.  Prosecutors already enjoy tremendous discretion and autonomy regarding those that they decide to arrest and prosecute.  The majority’s heightened “pattern or practice” standard will likely increase that autonomy by further institutionalizing prosecutorial immunity from suit by the wrongfully convicted.