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Former death row inmate calls out D.A. on Brady violations

29th August 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

From the moment Leon Cannizzaro took office as the District Attorney for Orleans Parish, he faced an uphill battle in convincing the public of the integrity of his office.

Within his first week behind the desk, a former death row inmate named John Thompson, who had been convicted in separate cases of both murder and armed robbery, had prevailed in a major lawsuit against the D.A.’s office.

The lawsuit, a whopping judgment of $14 million, wasn’t filed against Cannizzaro, but rather one of his predecessors, Harry Connick. It would also later be dismissed, after being challenged all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the case would prompt the Innocence Project of New Orleans to examine what it called an “ongoing problem” of prosecutorial misconduct in New Orleans. And, although Cannizzaro has denied wrongdoing on several occasions, similar allegations have carried over beyond the tenure of Connick, and into the office of the city’s current district attorney.

Among those who accuse the district attorney’s office of a “culture of hiding evidence and cheating” in New Orleans is Thompson. In early August, he penned a letter to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, asking them to investigate the New Orleans D.A.’s office by looking for other wrongful convictions that could have slipped through the cracks.

Thompson asked the DOJ to pay particular attention to cases prosecuted by Jim Williams, an assistant district attorney who helped put him on death row while working for Connick. But the allegations of ongoing misconduct in his letter are clear, as he also accuses Cannizzaro of a failure to “review the integrity” of past convictions once he took office.

“Make no mistake that the District Attorney of New Orleans today, Leon Cannizzaro, is absolutely one of the men who learned from Harry Connick’s prosecutors,” Thompson wrote. “The poor of New Orleans still live under the terror of the sort of lawlessness that brutalized me and my family. And because the people in Orleans have lost faith in the justice system, the entire city has suffered. Nothing has changed and no-one cares.”

A deeper look at the history of prosecutorial misconduct in Louisiana – at least at the cases that have come to light – reveal that most violations incurred under the tenure of Connick. And during his re-election campaign in 2014, Cannizzaro announced he was going to improve the likelihood of fairness in the city’s criminal justice system, and steer his office away from the shroud of prosecutorial misconduct, with the creation of a new arm called the Conviction Integrity Unit.

Still, critics have pointed to a handful of cases involving alleged D.A. misconduct that Cannizzaro has defended, even up to the nation’s highest court, as evidence that the city’s current D.A. lacks the kind of integrity needed to truly reform the criminal justice system.

Thompson’s case

Thompson’s long distrust and anger toward the Orleans Parish D.A.’s office can be traced back to 1985, after he was convicted of an armed robbery. That same year, the same office tried and convicted him on a capital murder case.

The evidence in the first case included a blood analysis done by a lab, which showed that the person responsible for the crime had a different blood type than Thompson.

Armed with a confession that the prosecutor in his case had deliberately withheld that evidence favorable to him, Thompson’s armed robbery case was dismissed in 1999.

Later, an appeals court decided that the conviction had prevented Thompson from testifying in his own murder trial, and reversed that conviction.

In 2003, the inmate won a new trial, and was found not guilty for that murder. He was released after spending 18 years in jail, 14 of which had been on death row.

He sued the D.A.’s office, and in 2008 – a day after Cannizzaro took over at the helm—a jury decided that the former death row inmate should get a judgment of $14 million.

Ultimately, Cannizzaro’s office never had to pay up the money. The case was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and three years after the jury decision in Louisiana, justices decided in a 5-to-4 decision that Thompson had not shown enough of a pattern of misconduct for the Orleans Parish D.A.’s Office to be held accountable.

The justices essentially said what Cannizzaro would later agree with, in defending several cases tried under his predecessor: that Thompson’s case was the result of one rogue prosecutor in a sea of other well-intentioned lawyers.

“The prosecutors who tried Thompson’s armed robbery case failed to carry out this responsibility,” said Justice Clarence Thomas, in his opinion for the majority decision. “But the only issue before us is whether Connick, as the policy maker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train the attorneys under his authority.”

To this day, Thompson disagrees.

“Jim Williams was not alone: there was a culture of hiding evidence and cheating in the District Attorney’s Office in New Orleans that spread over several decades,” Thompson wrote. “Make no mistake that there are scores of innocent men – mostly poor Black men — who are wrongly convicted and sentenced to live out their days in Angola prison because Harry Connick’s prosecutors didn’t care one inch about the rights of the poor of this City.”

Brady violations

At the core of Thompson’s case – and at what some say was the downfall of Connick’s tenure – was something known as a “Brady violation,” when prosecutors fail to turn over to defense lawyers evidence that might be favorable to the defense’s case.

The rule, named after the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, has broad applications in the criminal justice system. Not only do prosecutors have to turn it over regardless of whether the defense asks for the information, but they’re now on the hook to ask other law enforcement officials if there’s any exculpatory evidence that has yet to be turned over to prosecution, as Cannizzaro explained to editors of Gambit in a 2011 interview.

“One of the public’s big misunderstandings about Brady is that it has come to mean “intentional misconduct” on the part of the prosecutor,” Cannizzaro said, according to the transcribed interview. “But the Supreme Court has recognized that a prosecutor can be in good faith in not turning over information — and it would still be a violation of the rules of Brady.”

In his letter, Thompson encloses a list of 38 Brady violations. Of them, two occurred while Cannizzaro has been in office.

Fewer than five were either before 1970, or between the years of Connick’s tenure and Cannizzaro’s. The rest – more than two-dozen – occurred while Connick was at the helm.

The Innocence Project has delved further into Brady violations during his tenure, from 1973 to 2002. It found that in the case of capital punishment, favorable evidence was withheld from nine of the 36, or a quarter, of all men sentenced to death in Orleans Parish from 1973-2002.

Four of those men were eventually exonerated, having been released only after serving a collective 43 years on death row.

Cannizzaro’s ‘troubled history’

Regardless of Cannizzaro’s light history of Brady violations, at least in comparison to his predecessor, Thompson isn’t alone in accusing Cannizzaro of behaving with misconduct. For years legal experts have opined that the prosecutor has a blind spot when it comes to prosecuting at the expense of justice.

They point to the case of Michael “MikeMike” Anderson, who was sentenced to death in 2009 after being accused of murdering five men in Central City in what’s been described as a gang-related shootout.

It was Cannizzaro’s first capital case. A year later, Anderson won a new trial after a recording was discovered that showed an interview undermining his own story.

Cannizzaro’s office turned over the video after it was discovered, but despite the quick action on the part of his office, the damage had been done to the case.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney’s office said what Anderson’s attorney had been claiming from the get go: that it wasn’t his client who committed the 2006 massacre, but another, far more notorious gang member named Telly Hankton.

A year after Anderson got a do-over on his case, a man named Jamaal Tucker was convicted of second degree murder, for the 2008 shooting death of a man in a public housing complex.

Cannizzaro agreed to throw out the conviction, however, after information came out that he had made a phone call to the district attorney of Lafayette Parish, which allegedly led to the release of a jailed key witness who had his own case for armed robbery.

A year later, Washington Post reporter Radley Balko outlined what he called New Orleans’ “persistent prosecutor problem,” saying Cannizzaro was “no exception.”

He pointed to the two Brady violations, but also said the D.A. was “actively covering” for Connick’s actions by defending the office against alleged Brady violations in the trial of Juan Smith – another case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The D.A. has also defended past convictions for Rogers Lacaze and Milton Isaac, who had other cases where prosecutors were accused of withholding evidence favorable to defense.

“Not only do the wrongly convicted in Louisiana not get a day in court against the people whose mistakes put them in prison, but there’s also no accountability for those mistakes at all. The prosecutor’s job is loaded with incentives to seek convictions at any cost and void of any sanction for going too far. It should be of no surprise, then, that Louisiana DA’s offices have long been ruled with a bloodthirsty, tunnel-visioned culture of conviction,” Balko wrote. “The current DA in New Orleans, Leon Cannizzaro, is no exception.”

Later, he added: “All of which is to say that for all the revelations to come out about the Connick era, very little has changed in Louisiana.”

The Louisiana Weekly received no comments for this article from Leon Cannizzaro’s office as of press time.

This article originally published in the August 29, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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