By Alan Bean
Sometimes innocent people go to prison even though everyone in the legal system behaves with integrity. But what happens when a wrongful conviction results from a prosecutor sitting on a pile of exculpatory evidence? Shouldn’t the man we pay to represent the state be held accountable?
I wish this was a hypothetical question; it isn’t. In this gripping op-ed for the New York Times, John Thompson tells us how it feels to come within a whisker of the electric chair. He also explains the prosecutorial misconduct that placed him in that situation and wonders aloud why the Supreme Court of the United States thinks its okay for prosecutors to withhold evidence.
The Prosecution Rests, but I Can’t
I SPENT 18 years in prison for robbery and murder, 14 of them on death row. I’ve been free since 2003, exonerated after evidence covered up by prosecutors surfaced just weeks before my execution date. Those prosecutors were never punished. Last month, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to overturn a case I’d won against them and the district attorney who oversaw my case, ruling that they were not liable for the failure to turn over that evidence — which included proof that blood at the robbery scene wasn’t mine.
Because of that, prosecutors are free to do the same thing to someone else today.
I was arrested in January 1985 in New Orleans. I remember the police coming to my grandmother’s house — we all knew it was the cops because of how hard they banged on the door before kicking it in. My grandmother and my mom were there, along with my little brother and sister, my two sons — John Jr., 4, and Dedric, 6 — my girlfriend and me. The officers had guns drawn and were yelling. I guess they thought they were coming for a murderer. All the children were scared and crying. I was 22.
They took me to the homicide division, and played a cassette tape on which a man I knew named Kevin Freeman accused me of shooting a man. He had also been arrested as a suspect in the murder. A few weeks earlier he had sold me a ring and a gun; it turned out that the ring belonged to the victim and the gun was the murder weapon.
My picture was on the news, and a man called in to report that I looked like someone who had recently tried to rob his children. Suddenly I was accused of that crime, too. I was tried for the robbery first. My lawyers never knew there was blood evidence at the scene, and I was convicted based on the victims’ identification.
After that, my lawyers thought it was best if I didn’t testify at the murder trial. So I never defended myself, or got to explain that I got the ring and the gun from Kevin Freeman. And now that I officially had a history of violent crime because of the robbery conviction, the prosecutors used it to get the death penalty.
I remember the judge telling the courtroom the number of volts of electricity they would put into my body. If the first attempt didn’t kill me, he said, they’d put more volts in.
On Sept. 1, 1987, I arrived on death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary — the infamous Angola prison. I was put in a dead man’s cell. His things were still there; he had been executed only a few days before. That past summer they had executed eight men at Angola. I received my first execution date right before I arrived. I would end up knowing 12 men who were executed there.
Over the years, I was given six execution dates, but all of them were delayed until finally my appeals were exhausted. The seventh — and last — date was set for May 20, 1999. My lawyers had been with me for 11 years by then; they flew in from Philadelphia to give me the news. They didn’t want me to hear it from the prison officials. They said it would take a miracle to avoid this execution. I told them it was fine — I was innocent, but it was time to give up.
But then I remembered something about May 20. I had just finished reading a letter from my younger son about how he wanted to go on his senior class trip. I’d been thinking about how I could find a way to pay for it by selling my typewriter and radio. “Oh, no, hold on,” I said, “that’s the day before John Jr. is graduating from high school.” I begged them to get it delayed; I knew it would hurt him.
To make things worse, the next day, when John Jr. was at school, his teacher read the whole class an article from the newspaper about my execution. She didn’t know I was John Jr.’s dad; she was just trying to teach them a lesson about making bad choices. So he learned that his father was going to be killed from his teacher, reading the newspaper aloud. I panicked. I needed to talk to him, reassure him.
Amazingly, I got a miracle. The same day that my lawyers visited, an investigator they had hired to look through the evidence one last time found, on some forgotten microfiche, a report sent to the prosecutors on the blood type of the perpetrator of the armed robbery. It didn’t match mine; the report, hidden for 15 years, had never been turned over to my lawyers. The investigator later found the names of witnesses and police reports from the murder case that hadn’t been turned over either.
As a result, the armed robbery conviction was thrown out in 1999, and I was taken off death row. Then, in 2002, my murder conviction was thrown out. At a retrial the following year, the jury took only 35 minutes to acquit me.
The prosecutors involved in my two cases, from the office of the Orleans Parish district attorney, Harry Connick Sr., helped to cover up 10 separate pieces of evidence. And most of them are still able to practice law today.
Why weren’t they punished for what they did? When the hidden evidence first surfaced, Mr. Connick announced that his office would hold a grand jury investigation. But once it became clear how many people had been involved, he called it off.
In 2005, I sued the prosecutors and the district attorney’s office for what they did to me. The jurors heard testimony from the special prosecutor who had been assigned by Mr. Connick’s office to the canceled investigation, who told them, “We should have indicted these guys, but they didn’t and it was wrong.” The jury awarded me $14 million in damages — $1 million for every year on death row — which would have been paid by the district attorney’s office. That jury verdict is what the Supreme Court has just overturned.
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.
A crime was definitely committed in this case, but not by me.
John Thompson is the director of Resurrection After Exoneration, a support group for exonerated inmates.
5 thoughts on “Innocent man: Why has the system left my prosecutor free to re-offend?”
The State of Louisiana should pay John Thompson.
Prosecutors should routinely be required to sign a statement under penalty of perjury that they have turned over exculpatory evidence.
Court computers should not schedule a hearing unless there is a written statement of probable cause. In my criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor only, in Routt County Colorado, there was no written statement of probable cause, there was no police signature on a criminal summons, there was no warrant, and there was no arrest. Although not like John Thompson’s bad experience, I was prosecuted based only on the signature of Jane Bennett, the wife of a (former?) convicted drug dealer who was also president of the city council and whom I had complained built extra buildings that violated the zoning. It was First Amendment retalitory prosecution exactly as described in the Supreme Court’s decision in Hartman v. Moore.
It makes me mad as hell to know that the district attorney can get away with holding evidence and nothing is done to him for commiting a crime!Yes, this goes on more than the public knows. The district attorney withholding evidence. When is the word justice really going to mean justice. I am majoring in the criminal justice field and have thought more than once with changing my major, but we need more black people to take a stand for justice once and for all. Yes, John Thompson does deseve to be rewarded for sitting behind bars for 14 years. Who are these people that think that this man does not deserve to be compensated for his pain and suffering? Are they white people standing behind one another , when this clearly is a case of wrong.
Why is “prosecutorial misconduct” not disciplined by the attorney general or equivalent, or by the bar association? I realized the answer halfway through that sentence–there’s no incentive to get rid of successful prosecutors, and “professional discipline” is notorious for sweeping problems under the rug rather than dealing with them.
I am really stumped as to why the Supreme Court would overturn Mr. Thompson’s civil award, other than knowing the majority of the honorable justices are reactionary icebergs. Obviously his right to a fair trial was taken away by the DA, as I understand that any evidence the prosecution has must be shared with the defense. I’m as sure as John Thompson that the misconduct in his case, and the other death penalty cases, was not particular to them, but could have been found in many other instances if funds for lawyers and investigators had been available. Perhaps it’s because civil suits can be used to force change in a system that the Supreme Court found a way to reverse Mr. Thompson’s settlement. When lawsuits from prisoners asserting their civil and human rights affected the system, the right to sue for bad treatment in prison was effectively taken away. Perhaps the Supreme Court has, in their decision, set a precedent for cases of wrongful conviction (or wrongful death?) in the future.
In my experience, the reason the courts are corrupt is because there is no system to detect and punish attorneys who lie, falsify, fabricate and conceal evidence. They leave it to “ethics” enforcement another failed system.
Research on the web about John Gleason, the man known as Regulation Counsel in Colorado–employed by the Colorado Supreme Court–has turned up compelling evidence that Gleason may not be a lawyer. The document numbers below correspond to documents in the embedded file icon below, so you can review them yourself:
According to online bios [(1) and (2)], Gleason received his law degree from Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law. This is a third-tier law school, which nevertheless says on its website [(3), from http://www.law.onu.edu/admissions/applicationprocess.html#requirements%5D that it requires a baccalaureate degree from an accredited undergraduate institution for admission. There is no evidence Gleason ever obtained the undergraduate degree.
In two online bios [(1) and (2)] Gleason has stated that he “attended” Columbia College–not specifying a location, so making it sound like Columbia University–and, elsewhere, that he “attended” Bowling Green State University. He never says he graduated from either of these undergraduate institutions. (In fact, he does not even use the word “graduated” in connection with Pettit College of Law. He says he “earned his law degree” there.)
There is a Columbia College in Aurora, Colorado, which appears to be a for-profit (in the business of selling degrees). Gleason is lecturing there currently, in juvenile law(1); and this is interesting, because he has no experience in juvenile law, or any other field of practice, as discussed below. As to Bowling Green State, it appears Gleason would have liked to call this school his alma mater, but cannot, because he did not graduate. A donors’ list which turns up on the BGSU website contains the names of thousands of donors, almost all of which are followed by a year of graduation–e.g., “Barry Smith ’67.” John Gleason’s name is on this list but is not followed by a year. [(4), on p. 52]
One of Gleason’s bios states that he “previously served as a criminal prosecutor” for several years.(1) Another bio says he “served in the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office”–without identifying where Allen County is. Allen County, Ohio, is, in fact, the county where Ohio Northern University is located. I contacted the prosecutor’s office and they have no record of Gleason ever working there, not even as a student intern. (5) I also contacted the Ohio attorney registration office and they said Gleason was not registered as an attorney in Ohio and had never sat for the bar exam in Ohio. So, Gleason’s statement that he “served in the prosecutor’s office” is intended to make people believe he had lengthy experience working as a prosecuting attorney, when he had no such experience at all.
Gleason’s bios also state that he was “in private practice with a law firm in Denver for several years” [(1) and (2)], making it sound like he also had a wealth of experience in civil litigation before coming to OARC. This is misleading, too. I found that he was admitted to the bar in Colorado in 1985, and that he worked with a sole practitioner named Robert Bartholic before being employed by the Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel in late 1987 or early 1988. I found this out by going through back issues of the Legal and Financial Directory to match up the office address. At best, then, Gleason worked 2-1/2 years for Bartholic after being admitted to the bar in 1985. I talked to Bartholic on Feb. 17, 2010, who said he did no litigation and that he “didn’t really have enough business to keep Gleason busy.” Thus, as I said above, Gleason has never had any experience in juvenile law as a practicing lawyer–although he is now teaching this subject to college kids–nor had he ever done any civil litigation or criminal prosecution as a lawyer prior to getting his job at OARC.
I note that the Attorney Registration Office in Colorado says it does not keep old employment records of attorneys or judges. I was shocked by this information–I think this must be a recent change. Thus, it is nearly impossible to find out if a judge on one’s case has a conflict, due to prior employment. This is why I had to go through back issues of the Legal and Financial Directory.
I located the advertisement for the job Gleason got at the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, in the Sept. 1987 issue of The Colorado Lawyer (34). The text of the ad is as follows:
“Full time & half-time investigative counsel, Supreme Court Grievance Committee. $36,876-42,684, full-time; $18,348-21,342, half-time. Must be adm. to prac. in CO w/at least 3 yrs law prac. to related exp. Send ltr. of interest, res. & one writ. sample to Committee Counsel, 600 17th St., #500S, Denver 80203-5435 by 8/25/87.”
This jibes with what Maximillian Potter reported in an article in 5280 Magazine last year (6), that Gleason was hired by OARC as an investigator. The problem is, he did not have at least 3 years experience (although the ad is garbled.) At the time he applied he might not have had even two, since he was admitted in 1985 (I believe in October, although I didn’t check whether October or May specifically). Interestingly, too, it appears that the 8/25/87 deadline stated in the ad for submitting applications would already have passed by the time the September 1987 issue was published, so that the ad was spurious: the new hire had already been selected.
The ad also required the applicant to submit a letter of interest, resume, and writing sample. In open records requests to the OARC which both Sean Harrington (of knowyourcourts.com) and I made early in 2010, we were told, first–not by Gleason, but by deputy attorney general Maurie Knaizer–that only Gleason could produce these records, since he was in charge of the office, and that Gleason was out of town. Later, Knaizer told us the records “do not exist.” So, what happened to them? These documents were part of a personnel file and a public record. Gleason was in charge of them and now they “do not exist.”
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