NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A man exonerated after 14 years on Louisiana’s death row for a murder he didn’t commit is leading a call for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate practices at the New Orleans district attorney’s office and look for other wrongful convictions and civil rights violations.
John Thompson’s complaint calls for special attention to cases prosecuted by Jim Williams, an assistant prosecutor in the 1980s under then-District Attorney Harry Connick.
Thompson and other advocates for criminal justice reform say state and local officials have failed to investigate and remedy abuses they attribute to Williams.
Thompson spoke Tuesday at a news conference In New Orleans.
“I was a victim,” Thompson said of the prosecutor who helped put him on death row. “He tried to kill me.”
His petition to federal officials cites five other death penalty cases prosecuted by Williams: two in which sentences were commuted to life; two in which the convicts were exonerated and one in which a new trial has been ordered.
Williams, now a private attorney in the suburb of Gretna, denied withholding evidence to favorable to Thompson in a brief emailed statement.
“To make the record clear for the very last time, I never withheld any favorable evidence in either of John Thompson’s criminal trials that I prosecuted,” Williams’ statement said.
Connick, who retired in 2003, has long defended his 30-year tenure as district attorney against allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in Thompson’s and other cases. He declined to comment Tuesday on Thompson’s letter.
Current District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, whose office is criticized in the letter for “failure to identify and review the integrity of the conviction for each and every individual prosecuted by Williams,” did not respond to an emailed request for comment to his public information office.
“Wrongful convictions are not limited to New Orleans and cases where prosecutors disregarded the law are not limited to New Orleans,” said Emily Maw, an attorney and director of the Innocence Project New Orleans. However, she said the problem is serious in New Orleans. She said her office’s work over the last 15 years has resulted in 28 people being freed or exonerated in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Tuesday’s complaint also notes the case of Curtis Lee Kyles, who won a new trial in a 1984 death case after prosecutors withheld information.
Thompson’s case drew national attention in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided 5-4 to overturn a $14 million judgment he’d won against Connick’s office, Williams and others for his wrongful conviction.
According to the court record, Thompson was first convicted in 1985 in an unrelated attempted armed robbery. That conviction proved important at his murder trial. Fearing the conviction would be used to challenge his credibility, Thompson chose not to testify in his own defense. Then, prosecutors noted the armed robbery attempt as they argued for the death penalty in the murder case.
Later, it was found that prosecutors under Connick had not disclosed the existence of a swatch of victim clothing stained with the would-be robber’s blood, or a test showing the blood to be type B.
Thompson, who has type O blood, eventually was exonerated in the robbery and the murder.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a majority opinion rejecting the idea that the district attorney’s office should be punished for failing to provide specific training to prosecutors on evidence that must be turned over to the defense. A strong dissent from Ruth Bader Ginsburg held that Thompson was entitled to the award “for the gross, deliberately indifferent, and long-continuing violation of his fair trial right.”