In an appalling 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed and even strengthened prosecutorial immunity, extending it from personal immunity to a stronger form of agency immunity as well. The case is Connick v Thompson, where Connick is the former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr. (yes, father of the crooner) and Thompson is John Thompson, a man falsely convicted of murder because Connick’s office hid a report that ultimately exonerated him.
The prosecutors admit to that, by the way. There is no controversy over whether they violated the law and their ethical obligations and railroaded an innocent man, who was only weeks away from being executed for that crime he did not commit when the report that proved his innocence was discovered and used to overturn his conviction. The prosecutors admit withholding the evidence.
Thompson then filed suit against the DA’s office, showing that Connick had failed to provide training for his prosecutors on the illegalities of withholding evidence. A jury found the office liable for that negligence and awarded Thompson $14 million in damages for the 14 years of his life spent behind bars and facing the death penalty. The appeals court affirmed that verdict. And the Supreme Court has now overturned it. The reason?
A district attorney’s office may not be held liable under §1983 for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single Brady violation.
It was only one guy!
Plaintiffs seeking to impose §1983 liability on local governments must prove that their injury was caused by “action pursuant to official municipal policy,” which includes the decisions of a government’s lawmakers, the acts of its policymaking officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law. A local government’s decision not to train certain employees about their legal duty to avoid violating citizens’ rights may rise to the level of an official government policy for §1983 purposes, but the failure to train must amount to “deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact.” Deliberate indifference in this context requires proof that city policymakers disregarded the “known or obvious consequence” that a particular omission in their training program would cause city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights.
Okay, so it has to be an official policy. And it can only be an official policy if they knew that the obvious consequence of their actions would be to violate the rights of citizens. So is the argument here that the prosecutors didn’t know that withholding evidence of Thompson’s innocence would violate his rights? The whole point of doing so was to lock him up and eventually put him to death, for crying out loud.
The 5-4 ruling was predictable — Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Kennedy in the majority, the court’s four liberals in dissent. You can read the full ruling here.
Remember when Clarence Thomas, during his confirmation hearings, talked about those buses full of convicts that he saw go by his office in DC and how, because of his background as a poor young black man, he would show more compassion to their situation because, but for the grace of God, there went he? Neither does he.
His message to John Thompson: Sure, the government ruined your life and violated your rights. Tough. You’ll get nothing. And like it.