When the justice system breaks

Former death row inmate John Thompson speaks at a news conference in New Orleans, Tuesday, March 29, 2011, after the Supreme Court overturned a $14 million judgement that accused New Orleans prosecutors of withholding evidence in order to help convict Thompson of murder. Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of which were on death row, before he was exonerated in 2003. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Sometimes, we’re a little too myopic when patting ourselves on the back for the system of justice we have in America.

There is theory and, then again, there is reality and the reality is for many people, the system is corrupt.

Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice Lorie Gildea was certainly on the right track when she spoke to citizens of Alexandria, Minn., this week, praising her court.

“Where law ends, tyranny begins,” she said, quoting philosopher John Locke.

“This is the terrible reality in many parts of the world,” she said, according to the Alexandria Echo Press.”We don’t often think how lucky we are to live under the rule of law.”

Most of us, anyway.

Coincidentally, two days before the people of Alexandria heard Gildea speak, John Thompson died, a victim, apparently, of tyranny.

He was only 55, and experienced freedom for only 14 years before a heart attack claimed him, finishing what prosecutors started when they withheld evidence that would’ve proven his innocence in a carjacking and murder.

The district attorney hid a report he received two days before Thompson’s trial in Louisiana was to begin. It showed Thompson’s blood type didn’t match the likely killer.

No matter; the justice system sent Thompson to trial where he was convicted and sentenced to die. He was days away from his eighth date with the executioner — the day his son was to graduate from high school — when his lawyer finally got someone to listen.

He was eventually awarded $14 million for his wrongful conviction, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled he wasn’t entitled to any of it.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented, said five prosecutors were involved in violating Thompson’s constitutional rights because “they kept from him, year upon year, evidence vital to his defense.”

“Long-concealed prosecutorial transgressions were neither isolated nor atypical,” she wrote.

In his opinion, however, Justice Clarence Thompson acknowledged prosecutors deliberately tried to have an innocent man executed, but that wasn’t enough.

“By their own admission,” Thomas said, “the prosecutors who tried Thompson’s armed robbery case failed to carry out this responsibility. But the only issue before us is whether Connick (the district attorney), as the policy maker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train the attorneys under his authority.”

No ethics charges were filed against any of them. No criminal charges were. No prosecutor went to prison. The only person who paid the price of a corrupt system, was the one who was innocent.

In a 2011 op-ed in the New York Times, Thompson said he’d be dead if a private investigator hadn’t uncovered the wrongdoing.

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. 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.

Worst of all, I wasn’t the only person they played dirty with. Of the six men one of my prosecutors got sentenced to death, five eventually had their convictions reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct. Because we were sentenced to death, the courts had to appoint us lawyers to fight our appeals. I was lucky, and got lawyers who went to extraordinary lengths. But there are more than 4,000 people serving life without parole in Louisiana, almost none of whom have lawyers after their convictions are final. Someone needs to look at those cases to see how many others might be innocent.

That’s not a functioning justice system and it’s certainly not one to be proud of.

Justice Gildea is right in her description of the system… when it works.

But it doesn’t work for everybody and the lack of outrage when poor people and African Americans are railroaded to execution long ago showed that too many Americans are OK with that.

That’s why football players take a knee to get their attention. Nothing else has worked.

Innocent people swept up in a malfunctioning justice system is an issue that doesn’t hurt America’s feelings.

That’s on us.