What’s at stake?  

Protecting wrongfully accused criminal defendants.

Issue:

Whether a district attorney will be liable for failing to train prosecutors about their duty to disclose exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland following one Brady violation.

Decision Date:

March 29, 2011

Outcome:

5-4 in favor of Connick.  Justice Thomas delivered the opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito; Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.

What the court held: 

This case stemmed from an appeal of a $14 million jury award to an innocent man who spent 14 years on death row after prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence to his lawyers that would have prevented his conviction.  A narrow majority of the Court exonerated Harry Connick, the former Orleans Parish District Attorney, of liability for the lack of training he provided to the prosecutors who worked in his office regarding their obligations to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendants.

More than 14 years ago, John Thompson was accused of a high-profile murder.  Following the publicity surrounding the murder accusation, victims of an unrelated armed robbery came forward and accused Thompson of that robbery.  Thompson was convicted of the robbery after prosecutors hid the fact that the robber’s blood type did not match Thompson’s.  In the subsequent murder trial, Thompson did not testify to rebut the charges against him because doing so would have allowed his robbery conviction to be entered into evidence.  Thompson was convicted of murder and spent 14 years on death row.  Thompson’s private investigator found the exculpatory blood evidence one month before his scheduled execution.  As a result, both of Thompson’s convictions were vacated.

Following his release, Thompson won $14 million in damages for the District Attorney’s failure to train prosecutors that they are required to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendants under Brady v. Maryland. The District Attorney appealed this award, arguing that he could not be liable based on a single violation unless strong indications existed that training was necessary.

Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, reversed the award, holding that “Thompson did not prove that [Connick] was on actual or constructive notice of, and therefore deliberately indifferent to, a need for more or different Brady training.”  The Court disregarded four Orleans Parish convictions that were reversed in the 10 years prior to Thompson’s armed robbery trial because of Brady violations, stating that the reversals “could not have put Connick on notice that the office’s Brady training was inadequate with respect to the sort of Brady violation at issue here.”  The Court also found that a District Attorney needs to provide less training than other municipal officials because subordinate prosecutors are generally trained to understand legal duties and have professional standards they must adhere to.

Justice Ginsburg issued a scathing dissent, which she read from on the bench.  The dissent criticized the Court’s decision by detailing a litany of Brady shortcomings to show that “the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish.”  In addition to the blood evidence, the dissent discussed the prosecution’s failure to inform Thompson of several pieces of evidence that called into question the credibility of key witnesses.  Justice Ginsburg wrote that “it was hardly surprising that Brady violations in fact occurred” since: “(1) Connick, the Office’s sole policymaker, misunderstood Brady.  (2) Other leaders in the Office, who boar direct responsibility for training less experienced prosecutors, were similarly uninformed about Brady.  (3) Prosecutors in the Office received no Brady training.  (4) The Office shirked its responsibility to keep prosecutors abreast of relevant legal developments concerning Brady requirements.”   The dissent characterized the District Attorney’s Office as a “tinderbox” in which “Brady violations were nigh inevitable.”  Thompson’s expert witness called Connick’s supervision of prosecutors on Brady “the blind leading the blind.”

The four dissenting justices also responded to the majority’s argument that the general legal training all lawyers receive is sufficient to diminish a District Attorney’s Brady training obligations by noting that most law schools do not require students to take criminal procedure and that continuing legal education was not required of lawyers in Louisiana when the case was heard.

District attorneys will now have less of an incentive to ensure that the prosecutors who work for them understand their legal obligations. As a result, innocent criminal defendants may never learn of favorable evidence that could save their lives and ensure their freedom.

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