Connick v. Thompson

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Connick v. Thompson
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued October 6, 2010
Decided March 29, 2011
Full case nameConnick, District Attorney, et al. v. Thompson
Docket no.09-571
Citations563 U.S. 51 (more)
131 S. Ct. 1350; 179 L. Ed. 2d 417; 2011 U.S. LEXIS 2594
Case history
PriorJury verdict affirmed in part, reversed in part, Thompson v. Connick, 553 F.3d 836 (5th Cir. 2008); on rehearing en banc, 578 F.3d 293 (5th Cir. 2009); cert. granted, 559 U.S. 1004 (2010).
SubsequentRemanded, Thompson v. Connick, 641 F.3d 133 (5th Cir. 2011).
A district attorneys office cannot be held responsible for failing to properly train its employees when the plaintiff can only prove a single violation of Brady v. Maryland. Fifth Circuit reversed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Case opinions
MajorityThomas, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Alito
ConcurrenceScalia, joined by Alito
DissentGinsburg, joined by Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan

Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51 (2011), is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court considered whether a prosecutor's office can be held liable for a single Brady violation by one of its members on the theory that the office provided inadequate training.[1]

In 1984, John Thompson, a 22-year-old African American father of two, was charged along with another man for killing a prominent New Orleans businessman. After his picture was published in the newspaper because of the arrest, victims of an unsolved attempted armed robbery identified Thompson as the person involved. Handling both cases, district attorney of the Parish of Orleans, Harry Connick Sr., chose to first bring to trial the armed robbery against Thompson in hopes that a conviction would help with the murder case. Based solely on the identification by the three victims, Thompson was found guilty of attempted armed robbery and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Then during the murder trial, Thompson was effectively precluded from testifying in his own defense because the prosecution would have impeached his testimony by referring to his armed robbery conviction. His codefendant was able to testify that he saw Thompson commit the murder without rebuttal testimony from Thompson. Thompson was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. However, Connick suppressed a critical blood sample test. A blood splatter on the victim from the perpetrator of the robbery showed that the perpetrator had a different blood type than Thompson. This meant that Thompson was wrongfully convicted of the robbery - a conviction that prohibited him from defending himself vigorously in the murder case. His murder case was vacated in 2002 and he was retried with his defense providing evidence that another man had committed the murder. After nearly two decades of wrongfully being imprisoned, Thompson was found not guilty in the retrial. Thompson sued Connick and several of his assistant district attorneys for suppression of evidence and won a verdict of $14 million.[2]

The Supreme Court overturned the $14 million award by a lower court in a 5–4 decision split along ideological lines.[3] The minority dissent observes that, as a matter of fact, Thompson was the victim of much more pervasive misconduct by the District Attorney's office than a single Brady violation.[4] The Supreme Court found for the appellant, Harry Connick, Sr., and ruled that the prosecutor's office is not liable.[1]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Justice Thomas wrote for the Court:

"Petitioner the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office concedes that, in prosecuting respondent Thompson for attempted armed robbery, prosecutors violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83, by failing to disclose a crime lab report. Because of his robbery conviction, Thompson elected not to testify at his later murder trial and was convicted. A month before his scheduled execution, the lab report was discovered. A reviewing court vacated both convictions, and Thompson was found not guilty in a retrial on the murder charge. He then filed suit against the district attorney’s office under 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging, inter alia, that the Brady violation was caused by the office’s deliberate indifference to an obvious need to train prosecutors to avoid such constitutional violations. The district court held that, to prove deliberate indifference, Thompson did not need to show a pattern of similar Brady violations when he could demonstrate that the need for training was obvious. The jury found the district attorney’s office liable for failure to train and awarded Thompson damages. The Fifth Circuit affirmed by an equally divided court. Held: A district attorney’s office may not be held liable under §1983 for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single Brady violation."

"(a) Plaintiffs seeking to impose §1983 liability on local governments must prove that their injury was caused by “action pursuant to official municipal policy,” which includes the decisions of a government's lawmakers, the acts of its policy making officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658, 691. A local government's decision not to train certain employees about their legal duty to avoid violating citizens’ rights may rise to the level of an official government policy for §1983 purposes, but the failure to train must amount to “deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact.” Canton v. Harris, 489 U. S. 378, 388. Deliberate indifference in this context requires proof that city policymakers disregarded the “known or obvious consequence” that a particular omission in their training program would cause city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights. Board of Comm’rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U. S. 397, 410."

"(b) A pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is “ordinarily necessary” to demonstrate deliberate indifference. Bryan Cty., supra, at 409. Without notice that a course of training is deficient, decision makers can hardly be said to have deliberately chosen a training program that will cause violations of constitutional rights. Thompson does not contend that he proved a pattern of similar Brady violations, and four reversals by Louisiana courts for dissimilar Brady violations in the 10 years before the robbery trial could not have put the district attorney's office on notice of the need for specific training."

"(c) Thompson mistakenly relies on the “single-incident” liability hypothesized in Canton, contending that the Brady violation in his case was the “obvious” consequence of failing to provide specific Brady training and that this “obviousness” showing can substitute for the pattern of violations ordinarily necessary to establish municipal culpability. In Canton, the Court theorized that if a city armed its police force and deployed them into the public to capture fleeing felons without training the officers in the constitutional limitation on the use of deadly force, the failure to train could reflect the city's deliberate indifference to the highly predictable consequence, namely, violations of constitutional rights. Failure to train prosecutors in their Brady obligations does not fall within the narrow range of Canton's hypothesized single-incident liability. The obvious need for specific legal training present in Canton's scenario—police academy applicants are unlikely to be familiar with constitutional constraints on deadly force and, absent training, cannot obtain that knowledge—is absent here. Attorneys are trained in the law and equipped with the tools to interpret and apply legal principles, understand constitutional limits, and exercise legal judgment. They receive training before entering the profession, must usually satisfy continuing education requirements, often train on the job with more experienced attorneys, and must satisfy licensing standards and ongoing ethical obligations. Prosecutors not only are equipped but are ethically bound to know what Brady entails and to perform legal research when they are uncertain. Thus, recurring constitutional violations are not the “obvious consequence” of failing to provide prosecutors with formal in-house training. The nuance of the allegedly necessary training also distinguishes the case from the example in Canton. Here, the prosecutors were familiar with the general Brady rule. Thus, Thompson cannot rely on the lack of an ability to cope with constitutional situations that underlies the Canton hypothetical, but must assert that prosecutors were not trained about particular Brady evidence or the specific scenario related to the violation in his case. That sort of nuance simply cannot support an inference of deliberate indifference here. Contrary to the holding below, it does not follow that, because Brady has gray areas and some Brady decisions are difficult, prosecutors will so obviously make wrong decisions that failing to train them amounts, as it must, to “a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution.” Canton, 489 U. S., at 395 (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part)."[1]


The New York Times opined that "Justice Ginsburg's dissent is the more persuasive...",[5] and the Los Angeles Times wrote that "[t]he court got this one wrong."[6] Nina Totenberg wrote that "a bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court all but closed the door" to prosecutors being held liable for damages when prosecutors violate the law to deprive a person of a fair trial.[7] Dahlia Lithwick wrote "Both Thomas and Scalia have produced what can only be described as a master class in human apathy. Their disregard for the facts of Thompson's thrashed life and near-death emerges as a moral flat line...only by willfully ignoring that entire trial record can [Scalia] and Thomas reduce the entire constitutional question to a single misdeed by a single bad actor."[8] Radley Balko noted that "...[t]here's something pretty unsavory about a judicial philosophy that cites a ruling that we now know sent an innocent man back to prison as an authority to deny compensation to another innocent man who was nearly executed because the government hid the evidence that would have and eventually did exonerate him."[9] Kieran Healy called the tone of the majority opinion "spiteful", and the decision a "Lord Denning Moment" for the court. Healy continued, "[t]he conservative majority preferred to affirm an obvious wrong rather than face the appalling vista of a brutal and corrupt justice system."[10] Andrew Cohen called the majority's argument a "warped rationale."[11] Wendy Kaminer wrote that "...what's striking about this case, aside from the majority's apparent indifference to practical realities and the actual sufferings of an innocent man wrongfully sentenced to die, is its indifference to the facts of the case outlined by Justice Ginsburg's dissent."[12] Bennett Gershman and Joel Cohen called the majority's reasoning "bizarre," and wrote that "[Ginsburg's] dissent was so contemptuous of the majority's decision that it provoked a gratuitous concurring opinion from Justice Scalia in a likely effort to seek to legitimize the majority opinion from her savage rebuke."[13] Writing for the American Constitution Society, Brandon Garrett called the ruling "chilling" and the majority's arguments "formalistic and circular."[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51 (2011). Public domain This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ Corn, David (March 12, 2015). "Cruz the Politician Champions the Death Penalty. Cruz the Private Lawyer Did Something Else". Mother Jones.
  3. ^ "Supreme Court rules against exonerated death row inmate who sued prosecutors" By Robert Barnes, Tuesday, March 29, 10:51 PM The Washington Post
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ "Failure of Empathy and Justice" March 31, 2011
  6. ^ "A wrong decision by the Supreme Court on civil rights" no date
  7. ^ "Man Wrongly Convicted: Are Prosecutors Liable?" NPR - Nina Totenberg - April 2, 2011
  8. ^ "Cruel but Not Unusual"
  9. ^ "Scalia and the Innocent"
  10. ^ "Connick v. Thompson "
  11. ^ "Prosecutors Get a Mulligan, Wrongfully Convicted Man Gets Squat" By Andrew Cohen March 30, 2011, 8:07 PM Atlantic
  12. ^ "When the Supreme Court Fears Too Much Justice" March 31, 2011, 9:11 AM ET Atlantic
  13. ^ Bennett L. Gershman and Joel Cohen, "Cops Are Stupid, But Prosecutors Are Smart" Posted: 04/ 1/11 11:30 AM ET
  14. ^ Brandon L. Garrett, "Hiding the Forensics" April 1, 2011

Further reading[edit]

  • Autry, Hannah (2012). "Connick v. Thompson: The Costs of Valuing Immunity over Innocence". National Law Guild Review. 69 (1): 29.
  • Bandes, Susan A. (2012). "The Lone Miscreant, the Self-Training Prosecutor, and Other Fictions: A Comment on Connick v. Thompson". Fordham Law Review. 80. SSRN 1842963.
  • Laurin, Jennifer E. (2011). "Prosecutorial Exceptionalism, Remedial Skepticism, and the Legacy of Connick v. Thompson". University of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 202. SSRN 1934250.
  • Moore, Janet (2012). "Opening the Black Box: Democracy and Criminal Discovery Reform after Connick v. Thompson and Garcetti v. Ceballos". Brooklyn Law Review. 77. SSRN 1942939.

External links[edit]