February 10, 2007
Freed inmate awarded $14 million
Lab report hidden in '85 murder trial
By Susan Finch, Times Picayune
A federal court jury on Friday ordered the Orleans Parish district
attorney's office to pay $14 million to a former death row inmate who
claimed he was wrongly convicted for the 1984 murder of local hotel
executive Ray Liuzza.
The verdict capped a five-day trial in 44-year-old John Thompson's lawsuit
claiming his rights were violated because a prosecutor on then-District
Attorney Harry Connick's staff hid information that could have helped
District Attorney Eddie Jordan, whose office will have to deal with the $14
million bill, said he will appeal because the financial burden it imposes
"will seriously affect our ability to execute our present functions and
serve our city."
Taking pains to distance himself from the case, Jordan said, "This
unfortunate incident happened on Connick's watch" and "is in no way
reflective of the procedures and practices of the district attorney's office
The $14 million award was viewed as vindication by supporters of Thompson,
who was 22 when he was convicted of Liuzza's murder and swiftly shipped off
to Louisiana's death row.
Liuzza, 34, was gunned down by a robber after midnight Dec. 6, 1984, in the
1700 block of Josephine Street, just around the corner from his apartment
building. He was shot five times, including three times in the back.
A neighbor heard Liuzza plead for his life, offering his watch and wallet to
the attacker. "Why did he have to shoot me?" Liuzza asked the police officer
who found him lying near the sidewalk.
Thompson, acquitted of Liuzza's murder by a second jury in 2003, chose not
to testify in his own defense at his original 1985 trial because taking the
stand would have allowed prosecutors to bring up his conviction for
attempted armed robbery in an unrelated case.
At his second trial at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Thompson was
able for the first time to personally profess his innocence to a jury.
During cross-examination, Thompson was repeatedly asked by prosecutor Val
Solino why he had no alibi for the night of the crime. "I was probably
dealer who plied customers with "clickums," marijuana laced with PCP. In the
retrial, the state focused on its original theory that Thompson was guilty
because he had at one time possessed the handgun that killed Liuzza and the
gold ring that Liuzza's killer took from him.
Thompson explained he got the ring and the gun through his drug dealing, and
he said it was common in those days to trade in "hot" merchandise.
Thompson's defense learned in 1999 that a former Connick assistant had
confessed as he was dying of cancer that he had suppressed a crime lab blood
report that cleared Thompson of the robbery. The stunning revelation came
weeks before Thompson was scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Angola
Two years later, in a decision that paved the way for Thompson to get a
second trial, a state appeals court overturned his 1985 murder conviction on
grounds that concealment of evidence denied him of his right to testify.
In its verdict, reached after about four hours of deliberating, the federal
court jury of six women and one man concluded Connick did not have an
official policy to withhold exculpatory evidence.
But the jurors agreed that a violation of Thompson's rights in the robbery
case and the murder trial were substantially caused by Connick's "failure,
through deliberate indifference, to establish policies and procedures to
protect one accused of a crime from these constitutional violations."
The Friday verdict is the latest victory won for Thompson by Philadelphia
attorneys Michael Banks and J. Gordon Clooney, who have waged a years-long
pro bono fight to clear his name.
Jurors were told that Disney has approached the two attorneys about doing a
movie on the Thompson case and that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would star as
Source : Times Picayune