Harry Connick, whose tenure as New Orleans District Attorney ended in 2003, turns 91 in a couple of months, but he sure hasn't been forgotten at Tulane and Broad.
Alas, his is not an honored legacy. He has gone down in history as the man who introduced the concept of prosecutorial misconduct to the masses.
To give Connick his due, he was DA for 30 years, and there is no proof that more than a tiny percentage of defendants on his watch were framed. But that is scant consolation for the innocents who were sent up the river.
Besides, the miscarriages that have come to light involved grave, often capital, offenses, these being the cases that attract scrutiny, and there is no telling how many how many lower-level defendants were not given their due, as regards process. An office that will railroad a murder suspect isn't going to be too fussy about the evidence in a marijuana case.
Connick's name is being bandied about again, for yet another unjust conviction of yore has returned to haunt the courthouse.
Robert Jones was released in 2015 after 24 years in prison when his conviction and life sentence were overturned. Current DA Leon Cannizzaro offered to close the case in return for a guilty plea to a lesser, albeit unspecified, charge, but Jones refused, insisting he is innocent.
Cannizzaro obviously doesn't think so, because he proposes to retry Jones for the rape and kidnapping of which he was convicted after a classic railroad job by Connick's office. Jones's attorneys were in court the other day, urging that Cannizzaro be instructed to call off the dogs, and grilling one of Connick's old henchmen, Roger Jordan, about the evidence suppressed at trial.
Although Jordan was hardly the only prosecutor willing to violate the rights of defendants in the bad old days, nobody else has ever been sanctioned for it by the state Supreme Court. Jordan was suspended in 2005 for withholding evidence in the case of Shareef Cousin, one of several defendants exonerated after being sent to death row under Connick.
The point of putting Jordan on the stand was to prove that the dirty tricks played on Jones by Connick's prosecutors were part of a “pattern.” The word is significant, because, when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 threw out a $14 million judgment against the DA's office, it ruled 5-4 that John Thompson had failed to show a pattern behind the misconduct that landed him on death row for 14 years.
This, to the layman, seemed a bizarre conclusion, since Thompson's attorneys had cited several other convictions overturned for what lawyers term Brady violations. But hairsplitting is a major part of the jurist's art. Those reversals didn't amount to a pattern, according to the Supreme Court majority, because they did not involve, as Thompson's case did, the withholding of “blood evidence, a crime lab report or physical or scientific evidence.”
Thus, if Jones, or any other aggrieved convict, wishes to sue the DA's office, the Supreme Court has staked out the path to a big payout — cite other wrongful convictions obtained by similar stunts. The celebrity attorney brought in to represent Jones, Barry Scheck, was at great pains to demonstrate a “clear pattern” that “involved the same prosecutors, the same M.O.” when Connick ran the show.
That, Scheck said, could be “a very serious problem” for Cannizzaro's office, which must wish that Jones had accepted the plea deal. Now, if the courts bar a retrial, or Jones is acquitted, a civil suit is clearly in the cards, and Cannizzaro’s office will be on the hook for any damages awarded for the unconstitutional antics of the Connick era. Such a judgment, unless the state came to the rescue, could put the DA's office out of business, and reduce the criminal justice system to chaos.
Scheck argues that Cannizzaro should be forced to drop the case because a fair trial is impossible not only because memories have faded but because the DNA and other physical evidence that was in Jordan's possession has disappeared. But that, of course, will make the prosecutors' job harder, and chances that Jones will beat the rap regardless must be pretty good.
If he does, the name of Connick will continue to be invoked at the courthouse where he held sway so long ago.