It's Time To Do Something About Prosecutors Who Break The Rules

Judge and gavel in courtroom
Judge and gavel in courtroom

My name is John Thompson. I am the victim of an attempted murder in New Orleans. The authorities know who the person is who tried to kill me, but they've never tried to bring him to justice. The man was a prosecutor, Jim Williams. He knew I was innocent, but he tried me for murder and argued for my execution. I spent 14 years on death row because of him, and four more in prison before I was exonerated in 2003.

Williams worked for Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr., who was the D.A. for decades. I was not the only one to suffer because of Williams' behavior -- he secured death sentences against six other men -- all of which were overturned, most because of prosecutorial misconduct. Connick's prosecutors sent scores of innocent Black men up the river to Angola prison -- either to die there or to live out our days on the plantation. Our lives didn't matter. They still don't. They wielded their prosecutorial power as they pleased, terrorizing the poor. They knew no one would care and no-one would pay attention. And they were right. No-one has ever tried to bring them to justice for it.

Jim Williams was so zealous in his pursuit of the death penalty that he even posed for a picture with the mini-electric chair on his desk on which he had taped the faces of the men that he had wrongfully sent to death row. The toy electric chair was his trophy for his kills. He posed with it like white men used to pose around the body of a Black man they had lynched. Proud. Defiant. The picture appeared in Esquire Magazine.

Williams could have been stopped. He could have been fired. He could have been brought to justice for what he did. But he wasn't.

Williams could have been stopped. He could have been fired. He could have been brought to justice for what he did. But he wasn't.

After some of the illegal behavior committed by prosecutors in the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office was exposed, Mr. Connick expressed concern to the public about what had happened on his watch, and named one of his loyal, young prosecutors, John Jerry Glas, as a special prosecutor to find out how these injustices had happened, and who was responsible. After looking into the misconduct, Glas told Connick that he was ready to indict Williams and possibly three others in the office, but Connick shut down the special grand jury.

Apparently, Connick wasn't willing to come clean about what had happened after all.

In shock, Glas resigned. But no one cared and nobody took any action to hold Williams or his colleagues accountable for their shameful actions, or to stop the bloodthirsty culture of cheating.

So it was left to me to try. I sued the prosecutor's office for what they did to me. A jury in Louisiana awarded me $14 million dollars for the 14 years of living hell they put me through. The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld my settlement, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the damages, ruling 5-4 that prosecutors can't be held liable for their misconduct, even when they deliberately cheat to convict an innocent person. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion, argued that prosecutorial ethics, education, and training, internal supervision, bar oversight, and even criminal sanctions are enough to make sure prosecutors behave properly. But he is wrong. Study after study, including one by the Yale Law Journal, has shown that prosecutors are almost never held accountable when they cheat or behave illegally. I helped to lead panel discussions across the country showing that the idea of accountability is a lie; a dangerous lie.

Prosecutors are almost never held accountable when they cheat or behave illegally.

I am one of many victims of this totally preventable crime. A new report released today by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project shows that the prosecutors in the country who have sought the death penalty the most also committed misconduct at alarmingly high rates. Three of the top five deadliest prosecutors in America had misconduct found by courts in at least one-third of their death penalty cases. Four of the five deadliest district attorneys prosecuted, or oversaw the prosecution of, eight people who were later exonerated and released from death row. This total represents approximately one out of every 20 death row exonerations that have occurred nationwide.

My friend Glenn Ford was another one of the victims. He and I spent all 14 of my death row years together. He was exonerated in 2014 after 30 years on death row. He died a year later of cancer. A team of us cared for him around the clock in his final months. He was from Shreveport, one of the death penalty capitals of the South. He was prosecuted with the same kind of bloodthirsty lynch mob mentality that reigned in New Orleans in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they won't compensate his family.

I'm scared for others like me, who will be ripped to shreds by our system because they are poor and Black.

Jim Williams left me for dead. My family, my people, my community and I will never fully move on from that. No one could. I'm scared for others like me, who will be ripped to shreds by our system because they are poor and Black. Their rights don't matter. Their lives don't matter. But I am also scared for you and me -- neighbors in this city, this country where violent crime terrorizes us all too. For when prosecutors cheat with impunity, the wrong person goes to prison and the real perpetrators are out on the streets, free to commit more crimes. My family has been a victim of that kind of crime too. I don't want it any more than you do.

The only people who benefit from prosecutorial misconduct are the real perpetrators of crime who have escaped justice while innocent men and women are locked up for their crimes, those who abuse their prosecutorial power, and the politicians who want to keep it that way.

It's time for a change. Ideas have been proposed by New York Times editorial board and Mitchell Caldwell, a criminal law expert and professor at Pepperdine University School of Law.

The solution isn't simple, but I'm sick of being told there's no solution -- that the torture I endured is just an inevitable byproduct of our system. What happened to me was no ethical lapse or minor infraction, it was premeditated attempted murder, and it was a completely preventable crime.