'I Don't Care About the Money'


John Thompson spent 18 years in prison, and 14 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. At one point he was within weeks of being executed. This was not the result of an honest mistake by the prosecution, but a conscious effort to conceal evidence of Thompson's innocence:

Previously undisclosed police reports showed witnesses at the crime scene had described the shooter as 6 feet tall with close-cropped hair. Thompson was 5-feet, 8-inches tall with a huge Afro. The description, in fact, fit not Thompson, but Freeman, the man who had made the deal to testify against Thompson. In all, there would be 10 pieces of exculpatory evidence that prosecutors failed to turn over to the defense at the first murder trial. At the second trial, a jury acquitted Thompson after just 35 minutes of deliberation.

Thompson sued the DA's office and won a $14 million judgement. The Supreme Court overturned the decision. Thompson, himself, writes:

I don't care about the money. I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn't do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued. 

Worst of all, I wasn't the only person they played dirty with. Of the six men one of my prosecutors got sentenced to death, five eventually had their convictions reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct. Because we were sentenced to death, the courts had to appoint us lawyers to fight our appeals. I was lucky, and got lawyers who went to extraordinary lengths. 

But there are more than 4,000 people serving life without parole in Louisiana, almost none of whom have lawyers after their convictions are final. Someone needs to look at those cases to see how many others might be innocent. If a private investigator hired by a generous law firm hadn't found the blood evidence, I'd be dead today. No doubt about it.

I guess there's some argument for why you shouldn't be able to sue the District Attorney, though I can't really see it. But what's hardest to swallow is the lack of any kind of actual punishment for attempting to enlist the machinery of the state in the killing of an innocent man.

This was always the most trenchant critique, for me, of the fall-out from the Duke rape case. Mike Nifong got exactly what he had coming to him. But I can't think of single incident where a prosecutor who engaged in the same species of unscrupulous behavior was equally punished. Perhaps I have that wrong. Please correct me if I do. 

The point should never be that what the players from that lacrosse team "wasn't that bad" or some such. What we need is more justice of the sort meted out to Nifong, not less.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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