When prosecutors violate the law to deprive a person of a fair trial, is vindication enough, or should the prosecutors be held liable for damages?
This week, a bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court all but closed the door to such lawsuits. The 5-4 ruling came in the case of a New Orleans man who served 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
In December of 1984, Raymond Liuzza Jr., the son of a prominent New Orleans business executive, was shot to death in front of his home. Police, acting on a tip, picked up two men, Kevin Freeman and John Thompson.
Thompson denied knowing anything about the shooting, but Freeman, in exchange for a one-year prison sentence, agreed to testify that he saw Thompson commit the crime.
Prosecutors wanted to seek the death penalty, but Thompson had no record of violent felonies. Then, a citizen saw his photo in the newspaper and implicated him in an attempted carjacking — and prosecutors saw a way to solve their problem. John Hollway, who wrote a book about the case, said the solution was to try the carjacking case first.
A conviction in the carjacking case would yield additional benefits in the subsequent murder trial, Hollway observes. It would discredit Thompson if he took the stand in his own defense at the murder trial, so he didn’t. And the carjacking would be used against him during the punishment phase of the murder trial.
It all worked like a charm. Thompson was convicted of both crimes and sentenced to death for murder. […]