By the Editorial Board, October 20th 2015
How many constitutional violations will it take before the New Orleans district attorney’s office is held to account for the culture of negligence and outright dishonesty that has pervaded it for decades?
In dozens of cases over the years, the office — largely under the command of former District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr. — failed to turn over material to defense lawyers that would have helped their clients.
And yet the Supreme Court refused to find any pattern of misconduct when it was confronted in 2011 with one of the most egregious examples in memory: the case of John Thompson, who spent 14 years on death row before a private investigator discovered that several prosecutors in Mr. Connick’s office had lied for years about a crime-lab report that ultimately led to Mr. Thompson’s exoneration.
In an astonishingly myopic opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court threw out Mr. Thompson’s $14 million jury award on the grounds that he had shown a violation only in his own case, and not a pattern of misconduct, as the justices have required.
In reality, Mr. Thompson’s case was one of many in which New Orleans prosecutors disregarded their constitutional duties. Louisiana courts have overturned at least 36 convictions as a result of these violations. And those are just the cases where wrongdoing was uncovered. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for unscrupulous prosecutors to hide evidence that might hinder a conviction.
That’s what happened in the latest example of misconduct out of New Orleans, where prosecutors only last month disclosed a 19-year-old memo that undercuts their case against Robert Jones, who was sentenced to life without parole for a 1992 kidnapping, robbery and rape that he denies committing.
The case depended upon Mr. Jones’s connection to another man, Lester Jones, who was himself convicted of multiple crimes around the same time. Prosecutors at trial said the two men had been accomplices. But an internal memo written in 1996 makes it clear that prosecutors knew before trial that there was no evidence linking the men.
Despite their awareness of this key flaw, which the police had also alerted them to, the prosecutors did not reveal it to defense lawyers. Nor did the D.A.’s office turn over the memo when Robert Jones challenged his conviction a decade later, and Lester Jones reiterated in court that he did not know Robert Jones, and had told prosecutors this before trial.
The memo only came to light in late September, when a new prosecutor on the case found it and turned it over. By then, a state appeals court had already tossed out Robert Jones’s conviction because of other instances in which prosecutors withheld crucial evidence from the defense, including a statement from a witness describing someone who did not look like Mr. Jones.
The current New Orleans district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, has promised that he is working to uncover and remedy the unjust convictions won over the years by his predecessors. Unbelievably, his office is still set on convicting Robert Jones again.
The Supreme Court missed a chance to take aggressive action to thwart the rampant, unconstitutional behavior at the New Orleans prosecutor’s office, and has turned down other opportunities since. As long as the justices look the other way, unethical prosecutors around the country will have little incentive to change their ways.