Prosecutorial Misconduct: The Case of Wrongly Convicted Death Row Inmate

Dr. Michael S. Vaughn discusses the case of Connick v. Thompson during Constitution Day at SHSU.
Dr. Michael S. Vaughn discusses the case of Connick v. Thompson during Constitution Day at SHSU.

Dr. Michael S. Vaughn, director of the College of Criminal Justice Ph.D. program, recently discussed the case of John Thompson, a innocent death row inmate who was convicted of murder and imprisoned for 18 years, during a Constitution Day celebration at Sam Houston State University.

“It was a very interesting case, but I found it to be very troubling,” said Dr. Vaughn, a criminal justice legal expert. “The state's attorney withheld exculpatory crime scene evidence from the defense, and the state's attorney manipulated eyewitnesses’ testimony so that Thompson was misidentified at trial as the killer, and the witness received a reward from the victim's family. Claims of prosecutorial misconduct resulted in the case going to the United States Supreme Court.”

In 1985, Thompson was charged with the murder of Raymond Liuzza in Louisiana. Three weeks later, he was accused in a separate armed robbery. The prosecution failed to turn over exculpatory evidence to Thompson’ attorney, which were used to secure the death penalty and which led to Thompson’s decision not to take the stand in his own defense. The evidence included a blood stain found at the robbery scene, which did not match Thompson’s blood type, and a description of the suspect at the murder scene, which more closely resembled that of a key eyewitness.

After this evidence was discovered, Thompson’s case was overturned based on a Brady violation, which is a 1963 Supreme Court case that requires the government to disclose exculpatory evidence. Thompson was released after 14 years on death row. He filed a civil lawsuit against the prosecutor, then Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. (father of singer Harry Connick Jr.) and won a $14 million verdict based on violations of his 5th and 14th Amendment rights.

The 5th Amendment states that there can be no trial without an indictment and prohibits double jeopardy and compulsory self-incrimination. The 14th Amendment provides due process and equal protection under the law.

The case, Connick v. Thompson, went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was overturned in April by a vote of 5:4. Thompson’s attorney argued that withholding Brady evidence by the prosecutor’s office was a “failure to adequately train prosecutors concerning their Brady obligations.” However, the Court ruled that this was a single incident of a Brady violation and it didn’t constitute a pattern of abuse.

However, Dr. Vaughn believes the case included evidence of a pattern of abuse. Nine years after the robbery conviction, an assistant prosecutor in the case made a death bed confession that the prosecution suppressed the blood evidence against Thompson. Evidence also showed that the lead prosecutor stopped reading law books after he was elected. The Supreme Court only found one Brady violation – the blood stain – but did not take into account the suspect description in the robbery case.

“Due process is essential to our justice system,” Dr. Vaughn said. “It is the backbone our justice system. The government must not take life, liberty or property without due process of law. Prosecutors must seek the truth and not be concerned with convictions, but be concerned with justice. Rigidly adhering to Brady helps that goal.”

The lecture, attended by students from several Colleges at SHSU, was one of five presented during Constitution Day at SHSU, which was celebrated on Sept. 14 and 15.

"Constitution Day is a day to remember the role the Constitution has played in organizing our political system and providing a framework in which to discuss pressing social and moral issues over the past two centuries," said Thomas Cox, associate professor of history and chair of the Constitution Day committee.

Member of The Texas State University System