John Thompson, a former death row inmate who narrowly escaped execution in 1999, then won his release from prison and a fleeting $14 million judgment against the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office over a shocking case of prosecutorial misconduct, died Tuesday at a local hospital.
The cause was a heart attack, said local prison reform advocate Norris Henderson, a friend who knew Thompson from their years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Thompson was 55.
After his release in 2003, Thompson became a national voice for victims of prosecutorial abuses. Locally, he founded Resurrection After Exoneration, a re-entry and support program for released inmates on St. Bernard Avenue.
"John was a good person. All he wanted to do with the rest of his life was kind of give back," Henderson said. "He traveled across the country, educating public defenders about the attorney-client relationship — how they have to listen to their clients. When you hear a bunch of stories about 'I didn't do it,' people get jaded."
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A man exonerated after 14 years on Louisiana's death row for a murder he …
Thompson's own prosecution involved hidden blood evidence in a carjacking case that former District Attorney Harry Connick's office used to help secure his conviction and death sentence in the high-profile murder of New Orleans hotel executive Ray Liuzza Jr.
Thompson was accused in both crimes, which took place a few months apart in 1984.
Connick's office tried him first in the carjacking. A jury convicted him, and a judge handed Thompson a 49-year prison sentence. Thompson then declined to take the witness stand in his murder trial, knowing the earlier conviction would come into play if he testified.
He'd spent 14 years on death row and was just 30 days from an execution date that appeared certain when an investigator discovered blood evidence from the carjacking victim's clothes that the state never revealed. It was the carjacker's blood, but it wasn't Thompson's.
A former prosecutor then revealed that Gerry Deegan, one of the prosecutors who tried Thompson, confessed on his deathbed in 1994 that he intentionally hid the blood evidence.
Both convictions were thrown out, and Thompson was acquitted in a 2003 retrial for Liuzza's murder. Thompson testified in his own defense, along with new witnesses who contradicted the state's evidence. He was released that day and later won a federal jury verdict for $14 million in 2007.
But in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved that award, ruling in 2011 that a district attorney's office can't be held liable for a single violation of Brady v. Maryland, the 1963 decision that requires prosecutors to turn over all favorable evidence to the defense.
Thompson had failed to show there was a pattern of violations in Connick's office that would demonstrate "deliberate indifference" in failing to train prosecutors, the court found in an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Thompson wasn't shy afterward in accusing Connick's office of criminal acts, in his case and others.
"I don't care about the money. 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," Thompson wrote in a 2011 editorial published in The New York Times. "There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued."
Thompson was always clear that, while he was not a killer, he was no angel at the time of his arrest.
He was a hustler and small-time drug dealer when police fingered him in Liuzza's killing. He said he had sold a marijuana joint laced with PCP to a customer who paid him with the murder weapon and a ring that had belonged to Liuzza.
When Thompson first arrived on death row in 1987, he entered his assigned cell to find the belongings of Sterling Rault, who had just been executed — one of eight executions that year in Louisiana, all by electric chair.
“My mind would light with images of me being strapped to the chair, the sound of electricity ringing in my head,” Thompson wrote later.
At first, he was hot-headed and regularly disciplined by prison officials. Older prisoners such as Mwalimu Johnson and Robert King Wilkerson helped him break the pattern, Thompson said.
“When I got out of the hole, Mwalimu would say, ‘When you gonna stop that? You can’t win that war,' ” Thompson said.
“You use that ink pen, use that pencil,” Wilkerson told him, advising Thompson to fight the system in court.
Thompson lost his grandmother, who raised him, and his father while he sat on death row in the mid-1990s. His sons, Dedric and John Jr., were 6 and 4 when he was arrested. They grew up thinking he was a killer, and during visits to Angola, they spoke with their father through a steel-mesh window the size of a cereal box.
Thompson, though, was intent on maintaining contact.
“I remember one time, when he was talking with me on the phone, I had complained about the school shoes my mom had bought me. Not a week later, a brand-new pair of sneakers arrived at my house, from him," said Dedric West, who’s now 38.
West also recalled a visit to Angola when Thompson was nearing one of his six execution dates.
“He asked me to promise him that I wasn’t going to be angry with the system and then do something that he didn’t approve of,” he said. “He wanted to make sure that I didn’t have any ill feelings toward society. And I understood that. So I promised him.”
When a court assigned Thompson his last execution date, for May 1999, he sold his belongings to other prisoners to raise money for his family. Those inmates sent money orders to Carol Kolinchak, one of Thompson's lawyers, with directions.
“To the last, he wanted to do his best to support them,” Kolinchak said. “That’s what he was thinking about in those moments.”
After his acquittal, Thompson got back in touch with a childhood friend. They wed in June 2003 and moved into a house in the St. Roch neighborhood.
Though he devoted himself to exposing prosecutorial corruption, Thompson maintained a sense of humor that revealed itself in easy laughter at the antics of his grandchildren.
Still, he said he continued to feel the effects of his time inside prison.
“I’m still struggling," he said often. "I’m still struggling every day.”
Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, described Thompson as "an amazing force in the world" and a "national legend" who fought for justice as a New Orleanian, not only as a death row survivor.
"He was nearly murdered by the state, so Clarence Thomas taking away a jury verdict was nothing for John, except that it said in the halls of power your life still doesn’t matter," Maw said hours after Thompson's death.
"He was always strong and thoughtful and defiant. I can’t say it didn’t affect him, that it wasn’t gut-wrenching for him to be formally told that he did not matter enough … that none of that mattered enough," she added.
"But he did what he always did with the dreadful injustices life threw at him over and over again: He decided to use it to fight for accountability and more justice for people who came after him."
Thompson is survived by his wife, Laverne Thompson; mother, Josephine Casby; sons, Dedric West and John Thompson Jr.; brothers, Jermaine Jackson and Charles Jackson; sister, Sharmaine Jackson; and 12 grandchildren.
Services have not yet been scheduled.
Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this story.