Maybe John Thompson reminded Clarence Thomas of a childhood nemesis.
Maybe Thompson, who spent 14 years on Louisiana’s Death Row when prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence that would have proved his innocence, reminded the Supreme Court justice of one of the bullies who taunted him about his coal-black skin.
Or maybe, at least in Thomas’ eyes, Thompson quickly morphed into a black man who was looking for a handout instead of justice.
Or maybe it’s all of the above. It has to be. Because there’s no way that any fair-minded jurist would turn the sort of legal cartwheels that Thomas and his four other conservative colleagues on the high court recently turned to side with the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office in tossing out a $14 million verdict in Thompson’s favor.
Here’s what happened. In 1985, Thompson, then 22, was convicted of murder and armed robbery in Louisiana. He was sentenced to death on the murder conviction and came within weeks of being executed in 1999 when his investigators learned that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that would have freed him.
Among that evidence was the fact that the main informant had received a reward from the victim’s family and that the eyewitness identification didn’t match. Most of all, prosecutors deliberately concealed blood evidence and a lab report that would have cleared Thompson.
This they hid for 20 years.
Thompson’s convictions were overturned, and he sued Harry Connick Sr., the district attorney for Orleans Parish, for not schooling his prosecutors about their legal obligation to turn over such evidence to the defense. That obligation was laid out in a 1963 case, Brady v. Maryland, in which the Supreme Court said that to withhold such evidence is a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.
Connick, in fact, even conceded that he didn’t completely understand what Brady encompassed. A jury awarded Thompson $14 million.
But it seems that Thomas – who wrote the majority opinion in tossing out the verdict – was more than willing to join his white conservative cohorts in trampling the Constitution to give the powerful more ammunition to keep the powerless in their place.
Incredibly, in writing for the 5-4 majority, Thomas said that Thompson didn’t deserve any money because he couldn’t prove that there was a pattern of similar violations in previous cases, or that prosecutors deliberately set out to violate the Constitution.
He and his buddy, Antonin Scalia, basically said it was unfair for the entire prosecutor’s office to be held responsible for one bad act. As if it wasn’t unfair for Thompson, who is now 40, to have spent 18 years of his life – 14 of those on Death Row – locked up for a crime he didn’t commit.
That’s a heartless, wrongheaded decision – and one that flies in the face of what Thomas is supposed to be about.
Thomas is, after all, a man who is supposed to be a champion of individual responsibility for black people.
So then, why doesn’t he extend that expectation of responsibility to powerful institutions, such as district attorney’s offices, to make sure that prosecutors don’t almost cause an innocent person to be put to death because they withheld evidence that could free them?
Why is it that Thomas, a black man who grew up in Georgia during a time of lynchings and other injustices against black men, is so willing to contort the Constitution and human decency to make a decision that will invariably give prosecutors more leeway to get innocent black people like Thompson killed?
I have to believe it’s either a need for revenge against his childhood tormentors or all those blacks who cheered on his adult nemesis Anita Hill. Or maybe it’s a just a need to be different.
Many times, for black people, being different means having no history. It means being willing to sidestep the truth and fairness to show how colorblind they are and how they are not like all those other black people.
And, in the end, it’s a sad place to be.
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