Moreover, in a deathbed confession, a former assistant prosecutor admitted that he had deliberately hidden the blood evidence from Mr. Thompson’s trial lawyers.
After tests confirmed that Mr. Thompson’s blood type and DNA did not match the perpetrator’s, his robbery conviction was overturned. In 2002, the murder verdict was reversed. A year later, he was retried and acquitted after the jury deliberated for 35 minutes.
Mr. Thompson was awarded $14 million in damages by a Louisiana jury in 2007 — $1 million for every year he was isolated for 23 hours a day in a windowless cell, awaiting his execution.
But in 2011, an ideologically split United States Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that Mr. Thompson was not entitled to damages after all.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented in the ruling, argued that at least five prosecutors had been complicit in violating Mr. Thompson’s constitutional rights because “they kept from him, year upon year, evidence vital to his defense.”
But Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said Mr. Thompson had not demonstrated that the office of District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. (father of the singer) had systematically withheld exculpatory evidence, particularly from black defendants, or had not trained his assistants sufficiently.
“The role of a prosecutor,” Justice Thomas wrote, “is to see that justice is done. By their own admission, the prosecutors who tried Thompson’s armed robbery case failed to carry out this responsibility.
“But the only issue before us,” he added, “is whether Connick, as the policy maker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train the attorneys under his authority.”
Mr. Thompson died of a heart attack on Tuesday in a New Orleans hospital, according to Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, which helped represent him in his appeals. He was 55.
In the decade since he was exonerated, Mr. Thompson had married, become a churchgoer and established an organization called Resurrection After Exoneration to help and house former inmates in similar predicaments.
“I don’t care about the money,” he wrote in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times in 2011. “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,” he continued, “no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued.”
Mr. Thompson was born in New Orleans on Sept. 6, 1962. By the time his mother, Josephine Thompson, gave birth, John’s father, Charles Jackson, was serving a life sentence for murder.
Raised mostly by his grandparents in the Central City neighborhood, he dropped out of high school and fathered two sons by two different girlfriends while still a teenager.
On Jan. 17, 1985, the police kicked in the door of his grandmother’s house while Mr. Thompson was there and as his girlfriend, mother and two sons — John Jr., 4, and Dedric, 6 — huddled in terror.
The carjacking of a vehicle carrying young siblings had occurred a few weeks before, on Dec. 28, 1984. Mr. Thompson was charged with that crime and also, along with a co-defendant, Kevin Freeman, with murdering a local hotel executive, Ray Liuzza Jr., on Dec. 6. Mr. Freeman implicated Mr. Thompson.
“A few weeks earlier he had sold me a ring and a gun,” Mr. Thompson said of Mr. Freeman in the Op-ed article. “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,” Mr. Thompson continued. “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. 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.”
After being sentenced to 49 years in prison for the carjacking that he insisted he did not commit, Mr. Thompson was convicted of murder and received the death penalty.
Less than two months after he was released in 2003, after a total of 18 years in prison, he married Laverne Jackson, with whom he had grown up and who attended church with his mother.
He is survived by his wife; his mother, Josephine Casey; two half-brothers, Jermaine and Charles Jackson; a half-sister, Shermaine Jackson; five stepchildren; and 12 grandchildren and stepgrandchildren.
At various points in his appeals and civil suit, Mr. Thompson was represented without fee by, among others, Michael L. Banks and J. Gordon Cooney Jr. of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Philadelphia and Ms. Maw of the Innocence Project. She was assisted by Barry Scheck, director of the Innocence Project nationwide.
In a 2003 interview on the website probono.net, Mr. Banks said, “The initial linchpin to our success was proving that John was not responsible for an unrelated carjacking that effectively prevented him from testifying in his own defense during the murder trial.”
Mr. Scheck said in a phone interview that initially “his lawyers didn’t necessarily think he was innocent; they were just trying to save his life.” But, he added, “the more they went into it, the whole thing unraveled.”
Similar cases have continued to emerge in New Orleans as recently as this year, Mr. Scheck said.
In the Thompson case, after the blood test results pointed to Mr. Thompson’s innocence, a former prosecutor, Michael Riehlmann, disclosed that several years earlier, an ailing junior assistant, Gerry Deegan, as he was nearing death, had confessed that he gone into an evidence room and removed the pants from which the bloodstains were taken in order to keep them from the defense.
Mr. Connick, the district attorney, did not seek re-election in 2003. His successor, Leon A. Cannizzaro Jr., expressed relief when the Supreme Court reversed the civil award. With interest, it would have amounted to nearly $20 million, which was more than the annual budget of the prosecutor’s office.
Mr. Thompson was stunned.
“If I’d spilled hot coffee on myself, I could have sued the person who served me the coffee,” he said. “But I can’t sue the prosecutors who nearly murdered me.”
Ms. Maw, of the Innocence Project, recalled that Mr. Thompson had maintained his commitment to reforming the judicial system from the moment he was released.
“He was angry, and yet he had astounding strength from the moment he got out and a need to channel his anger to doing good in the world,” she said in a phone interview. “And that is what he did until he died.”
“I think the ironic ending to what happened was that it galvanized people around John,” she said, “and it clarified how little value our court system places on the lives of young black men that it throws away without regard to accuracy by prosecutors.”
She added, “Had it come out with a happy ending, it may have lulled people into a false sense that the courts in America care about poor and black people.”
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