Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the question on whether prosecutors can be liable if they violate the constitutional rights of the accused. The background of the case is, in addition, very instructive about the functioning of the death penalty, even before we get to the fact that the DA intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence:
In John Thompson’s case, there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime—the brutal robbery and murder of an unarmed New Orleans hotel executive in early December 1984. The shooting was outdoors, and no blood, fabric, or hair samples were collected at the scene. Ballistics confirmed that police had found the murder weapon, but Thompson’s fingerprints weren’t on it. Instead, Thompson’s conviction was based entirely on the testimony of four witnesses. Kevin Freeman, also arrested for the murder, testified (in exchange for a plea bargain) that he had seen Thompson pull the trigger. Two other men (who received cash rewards for their testimony) stated that they had heard Thompson confess to the killing, and another man (whose rape charge had been dropped by prosecutors two days before) said that Thompson had sold him the gun.
In a state with some basic commitment to justice, a case based solely on eyewitness testimony that ranges on a spectrum from “extremely self-interested and unreliable” to “effectively coerced” wouldn’t even go to trail, let alone lead to a capital conviction. This context makes the assertions of the DA’s office that they should have absolute immunity from liability for gross constitutional violations particularly outrageous. Whether a majority of the Supreme Court will see it this way, though…oral arguments should be interesting.