John Thompson was falsely convicted and eventually exonerated of two separate crimes.
Shortly after midnight on December 6, 1984, Raymond Liuzza was shot several times in the course of an armed robbery, just around the corner from his New Orleans, Louisiana apartment. When police arrived, they found Liuzza lying on the ground, still conscious. He told them he was robbed and shot by an African-American male, and died in the hospital soon after.
On December 8, responding to a tip, police arrested two men in connection with the crime: John Thompson and Kevin Freeman. Photos of the two men were published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and soon afterwards, police received a call from a family that had been carjacked several months earlier, claiming that Thompson looked like the person who had robbed them. Thompson was charged with the carjacking and the murder. Meanwhile, Freeman agreed to testify against Thompson in the murder trial, and in return, prosecutors charged him only with being an accessory to the murder. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr., decided to try Thompson for the carjacking case first, knowing that a conviction could be used against him in the murder trial. Based primarily on the eyewitness testimony of the three carjacking victims, all of whom were minors, Thompson was convicted on April 4, 1985, and sentenced to 49 years in prison.
At his murder trial, held shortly thereafter, the prosecution demonstrated that Thompson had at one time been in possession of both the murder weapon and a ring taken from Liuzza’s finger. Thompson decided not to testify in his own defense, because if he did his felony carjacking charge would have been described to the jury. As a result, he was unable to tell the jury that Freeman had sold him the murder weapon and the ring. Freeman, the main witness for the prosecution, claimed that he and Thompson had robbed Liuzza together and that Thompson had shot him. This testimony was contradicted by the statements of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen only one man running from the scene of the crime. Richard Perkins, who had originally called in the tip implicating Thompson and Freeman, also testified for the prosecution, claiming that he had heard Thompson make incriminating remarks. Thompson was found guilty and sentenced to death on May 8, 1985.
Over the next 14 years, Thompson’s attorneys appealed the case numerous times, but were repeatedly denied relief. By 1999, all appeals had been exhausted, and an execution date was set for May.
Events took a dramatic turn in April 1999. Thirty days before his scheduled execution, an investigator discovered that there was a blood stain from the robber on the clothing of one of the carjacking victims, and that this evidence had never been disclosed to the defense. The prosecutors had ordered testing to determine the blood type of the stain – in fact, they had rushed the test – but when the blood type was determined, and was different from Thompson’s, they concealed it. Defense attorneys then obtained an affidavit from a former district attorney stating that a prosecutor in the case had admitted to intentionally suppressing the blood evidence. Defense attorneys also learned that Perkins – the witness who testified that Thompson had admitted the murder – had received $15,000 from the Liuzza family as a reward. When this evidence was presented to the trial judge, he granted a stay of execution and dismissed Thompson’s carjacking conviction, but he denied Thompson’s motion for a new trial on the Liuzza murder. In 2001, however, he reduced Thompson’s death sentence to life in prison without parole.
In July of 2002, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Thompson’s murder conviction and remanded the case for retrial, ruling that the false robbery conviction – obtained by deliberate government misconduct – had deprived Thompson of his constitutional right to testify on his own behalf at the murder trial. At the second trial, Thompson was able to explain that he purchased the murder weapon from Freeman, and the defense called several new witnesses who claimed to have seen only one man fleeing the scene of the murder. They said that the man did not look like Thompson, but did resemble Freeman – who, in the meantime, had been killed in a shootout with a security guard. On May 8, 2003, a jury acquitted Thompson after deliberating for 35 minutes, and he was released from prison the same day.
In 2008, Thompson won a $14 million civil suit against the District Attorney’s Office. That judgment was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2011 on the grounds that the misconduct in the case was not the result of a deliberate policy or systematic indifference by the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office. He was subsequently awarded $330,000 in state compensation.
- Alexandra Gross