This week, the Supreme Court decided Connick v. Thompson. The decision received some justifiably scathing critique, and this morning, an eloquent, moving response from John Thompson himself, the man who spent eighteen years in prison, most of them on death row, for a crime he did not commit, because of prosecutorial misconduct. For an excellent summary of this distressing affair, and of Thompson's dramatic last-minute acquittal, I recommend the excellent NPR coverage. It's difficult to provide a short version, but the facts are, in essence, as follow:
Thompson got arrested for murder and subsequently charged with an unrelated burglary. The prosecution decided to proceed with the burglary trial first, because a conviction would rule out Thompson's testimony in the murder trial and would allow them to seek the death penalty. They did not reveal to the defense several important pieces of exculpatory evidence, including a blood sample taken from the crime scene. Thompson was convicted of burglary, did not testify in his murder trial because of the conviction, got convicted of the murder, too, and sentenced to death.
A month before his execution, a private investigator managed to unearth the blood sample hidden almost twenty years before. The blood type did not match Thompson's. Thompson was retried and acquitted of all charges.
Unbeknownst to Thompson at the time, several years before the discovery - when he had already been in death row for years - one of the prosecutors, diagnosed with a terminal illness, revealed to another prosecutor that he had withheld the exculpatory evidence. Now aware of the misdeed, no one else in the prosecutor's office had done anything to bring this information to light. After his exoneration, Thompson sued the prosecutor's office for damages under Section 1983. He was awarded 14 million dollars in damages by a jury. The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.
Justice Thomas's opinion was that the prosecution's failure to disclose the exculpatory evidence did not constitute a general flaw on the municipal/organizational level. The opinion states that this was a personal, intentional misdeed, and that there was no duty to train attorneys in discovery rules beyond what they learned in school. Justice Scalia's opinion is even more alarming: He says no discovery violation was committed, at all. Justice Ginsburg's dissent points out a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct at the office, arguing that better training might have prevented this tragedy.
Here are my two cents about this: The opinion and concurrence are wrong, empirically and morally. But the dissent also misses the point. Whether a given discovery error, or any other prosecutorial error, stems from negligence, lack of training, or intentional deed, it occurs within the fertile Petri dish of prosecutorial organizational culture.
Classic social science courtroom research in the 1960s and 1970s focused on "the courtroom workgroup": Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. In ethnographical studies of these groups, scholars have consistently found a strong adherence to the organizational culture of the office. One "goes native" upon starting to work there, and it impacts not only one's value system, but also how one reads criminal cases.
It's as if prosecutors are trained to see the faces and defense attorneys the vase, or vice versa. Prosecutors are trained to look at convicting evidence and at the "convictability" of the case. Defense attorneys are trained to find flaws in the police files. After a while - and it really doesn't take much - it becomes a second nature. Very little crossover and cross-pollination occurs, and as a result, ironically, the people in charge of spotting exculpatory evidence are prosecutors, who would naturally be less inclined to notice its exculpatory nature.
I sometimes run a little experiment when I teach our criminal law concentrators. Following this interesting experiment, I show them this video of a police chase and ask them several questions: Whether they think the driving was dangerous to the driver, the police, the public, and whether ending the chase in a way that endangered the driver was justified on the part of the police. Without fail, every year the classroom splits along several demographic lines, the notable being people who have interned in prosecutorial offices and in defense offices. Not only is there a split on whether the behavior was justified. There is a split about the facts; they have been socialized to perceive the facts in different ways.
This is what I think is at the bottom of this. One man's willful act of deceit gets support by others, who are too lazy/obtuse/corrupt to report, but all of this cannot happen without a culture that has educated them to dehumanize and disbelieve defendants, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. This cognitive failure is not an aberration; it is the natural outcome of a hyper-adversarial system, in which prosecutors basically run the show.
The bottom line is: Justice Thomas is wrong. Justice Scalia is even more wrong. Thompson should have prevailed. However, I am much less optimistic than Justice Ginsburg, and truly believe that no amount of training could have helped here. What is needed is more socialization, starting in law school and continuing, into the thinking patterns of the other side. Prosecutorial offices should hire more people with defense experience and vice versa, and those people - trained into the ways of thinking of the other side - should run training programs. Law school should emphasize the importance of arguing both ways, not as an empty exercise in fancy rhetoric, but as a tool for improving perception. The bar exam should place more weight on the performance exam, asking future practitioners for persuasive memos in both directions. And, of course, toning down our farcical, game-show-like enthusiasm for hyperadversarialism would help, but that may not happen in my lifetime.