Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Untouchables: America's Misbehaving Prosecutors, And The System That Protects Them

NEW ORLEANS -- Some questions seem particularly prone to set John Thompson off. Here's one he gets a lot: Have the prosecutors who sent him to death row ever apologized?

"Sorry? For what?" says Thompson. The 49-year-old is lean, almost skinny. He wears jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes and sports a thin mustache and soul patch, both stippled with gray. "You tell me that. Tell me what the hell would they be sorry for. They tried to kill me. To apologize would mean they're admitting the system is broken." His voice has been gradually increasing in volume. He's nearly yelling now. "That everyone around them is broken. It's the same motherfucking system that's protecting them."

He paces as he talks. His voice soars and breaks. At times, he gets within a few inches of me, jabbing his finger in my direction for emphasis. Thompson pauses as he takes a phone call from his wife. His tone changes for the duration of the conversation. Then he hangs up and resumes with the indignation. "What would I do with their apology anyway? Sorry. Huh. Sorry you tried to kill me? Sorry you tried to commit premeditated murder? No. No thank you. I don't need your apology."

The wrongly convicted often show remarkable grace and humility. It's inspiring to see, if a little difficult to understand; even after years or decades in prison, exonerees are typically marked by an absence of bitterness. 

Not Thompson, but you can hardly blame him. Even among outrageous false conviction stories, his tale is particularly brutal. He was wrongly convicted not once, but twice -- separately -- for a carjacking and a murder. He spent 18 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, 14 of them on death row. His death warrant was signed eight times. When his attorneys finally found the evidence that cleared him -- evidence his prosecutors had known about for years -- he was weeks away from execution. 

But what most enrages Thompson -- and what drives his activism today -- is that in the end, there was no accountability. His case produced a surfeit of prosecutorial malfeasance, from incompetence, to poor training, to a culture of conviction that included both willfully ignoring evidence that could have led to his exoneration, to blatantly withholding it. Yet the only attorney ever disciplined in his case was a former prosecutor who eventually aided in Thompson's defense.