- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An ideologically divided Supreme Court overturned a $14 million judgment given to a former death-row inmate who was convicted of murder after New Orleans prosecutors withheld evidence in his trial.

The court’s five conservative-leaning justices said the New Orleans district attorney’s office should not be punished for not providing specific training to young prosecutors on so-called “Brady rights,” which dictate when to turn over evidence to a suspect’s lawyer that could prove the suspect’s innocence.

But in a rare oral dissent read directly from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said former District Attorney Harry Connick created “a tinderbox in which Brady violations were nigh inevitable” and that defendant John Thompson deserved damages for “the gross, deliberately indifferent and long-continuing violation of his fair-trial rights.”

Thompson, who at one point was only weeks away from being executed, successfully sued the district attorney’s office in New Orleans, arguing Mr. Connick showed deliberate indifference by not providing adequate training for assistant district attorneys.

Prosecutors did not turn over a crime lab report that indicated Thompson’s blood type did not match the perpetrator in an attempted robbery in 1985. Prosecutors used that conviction to get the death penalty in another case Thompson was involved in.

Prosecutors normally have immunity for their actions while working, but Thompson convinced a jury that the district attorney’s office had not trained its lawyers sufficiently on how to handle evidence. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was split evenly on appeal, which upheld the lower court verdict.

Brady rights are named after the Supreme Court’s 1963 Brady v. Maryland case, which held that prosecutors violate a defendant’s constitutional rights by not turning over evidence that could prove a person’s innocence.

Lawyers are expected to know the law when they graduate law school and pass the bar exam, and undergo professional on-the-job training and continuing education afterward, Justice Clarence Thomas said. But Mr. Connick - father of the well-known pianist and singer Harry Connick Jr. - cannot be blamed for his lawyers’ deficiencies, he said.

“Prosecutors are not only equipped but are also ethically bound to know what Brady entails and to perform legal research when they are uncertain,” Justice Thomas said. “A district attorney is entitled to rely on prosecutors’ professional training and ethical obligations in the absence of specific reason, such as a pattern of violations, to believe that those tools are insufficient to prevent future constitutional violations.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. and Antonin Scalia joined with Justice Thomas in his decision.

Justice Ginsburg and the court’s left-leaning justices said there was “ample evidence” that Thompson deserved to prevail, however.

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