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Death Row Stories: Rough Justice in the Big Easy - John Thompson

Aired April 6, 2014 - 21:00   ET



The murder of a wealthy young man in the Big Easy seals the fate of a petty drug dealer.

PAT FANNING, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: That's the guy who did it and there's no question in my mind.

SARANDON: And gives two out of town lawyers a crash course in New Orleans justice.

JOHN THOMPSON, DEATH ROW INMATE: First, do you really understand what you're up against?

SARANDON: But when evidence of innocence emerges --

ELISA ABOLAFIA, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: Something was going on that was very unscrupulous and was deliberate.

SARANDON: The system will stop at nothing to get the verdict it wants.

MICHAEL BANKS, APPELLATE ATTORNEY: We had struck out and he was going to die.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was butchered and murdered.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many people proclaim their innocence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In this case there are a number of things that stink.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This man is remorseless.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He needs to pay for it with his life.

GLORIA KILLIAN, FORMER DEATH ROW INMATE: The electric chair flashed in front of my eyes.

DAVID MILLS, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Get a conviction at all costs. Let the truth fall where it may.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: World famous Bourbon Street. You can buy a song and dance for a dime.

SARANDON: On December 5th, 1984, Ray Liuzza, a fun loving 34-year-old bachelor from a prominent New Orleans family, was out on the town celebrating his promotion to vice president of one of the city's biggest hotels.

MAURINE LIUZZA, VICTIM'S SISTER: Ray was the epitome of people who are truly New Orleans. The love of the art and the history, the fine cuisine as well as the music.

SARANDON: Late that night, as Liuzza returned to his Garden District apartment, he was approached by someone in the dark.

LIUZZA: He was then robbed at gunpoint. He complied with the perpetrators, giving them up everything that he had. He asked them not to shoot him. And they did five times.

DONALD CUROLE, DETECTIVE: We got the call that there was a shooting on Barone Street. The thing that distinguished the crime scene was the amount of violence that occurred. Remnants of blood, bullet holes in the side of the house. The suspect just kept faring his gun. Every bullet and the weapon that he had.

LIUZZA: And he laid there as the ambulance approached and the police officers, he said why did they have to shoot me? He was then transported to charity hospital where he was pronounced dead. And my father collapsed and had a heart attack. They coded blue and I'll never forget that night as long as I live.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was all over news as soon as it happened. The tremendous amount of publicity.

RAY LIUZZA SR., VICTIM'S FATHER: It's been a great shock to us.

SARANDON: Ray Liuzza, Sr., a well known member of the community was able to recover from his heart attack and went public to find his son's killer.

R. LIUZZA: Time is the great cure-all. And as time goes on, we will be able to adjust. But nothing will replace the loss of our son.

SARANDON: The Liuzzas set up a $15,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of their son's killer. But a month went by and police struggled to find any solid leads. Until one night, a local fence named Richard Perkins contacted the Liuzza family. Perkins claimed he had the murder weapon. He said it had been given to him by a man named John Thompson.

JOHN HOLLWAY, AUTHOR, KILLING TIME: John Thompson was a low level drug dealer and fence. He grew up in the projects in New Orleans. Was raised mostly by his grandmother. His father was a career criminal.

CUROLE: Richard Perkins confronted Mr. Thompson after the fact and he got Mr. Thompson to confess that he was the one that killed Mr. Liuzza.

SARANDON: Perkins said Thompson also had an accomplice named Kevin Freeman. Police arrested both Freeman and Thompson.

HOLLWAY: The story that Kevin Freeman told police was that he and John Thompson had been driving home together and the car had run out of gas. Ray Liuzza drove past them, park and began to walk across the street to his apartment. At that point John Thompson turned to him and said, I'm going to hit that guy, and pulled a gun out of his pocket.

CUROLE: And then Mr. Freeman got cold feet, if you will, and decided he didn't want to be a part of it. And as he was running away, Freeman said he heard the shots.

SARANDON: The police charged Freeman and Thompson with murder. The local prosecutor wanted the death penalty for Thompson but knew it would be an uphill battle because Thompson had never been convicted of a violent crime. That was about to change.

HOLLWAY: On December 28th, 1984, 19-year-old Jay Lagarde, his sister Mimi who was 16, and their younger brother who was 12, went to the Super Dome for a college basketball tournament. After the game, as they were getting in the car, a African-American man jumped into the backseat, pulled out a .357 magnum and said I'm taking your car, I want your wallets, I want your valuables.

Jay was instructed to drive away from the Super Dome. Rather than do that he did something that was either very brave or very stupid and deliberately caused a car accident. The carjacker then left forward with the gun and Jay turned around and met him and they had a fight. Jay is pressed with his back against the driver's side door and manages to kick the carjacker in his face and out to the passenger side door. The carjacker obviously injured, drops the gun and gets away.

That claim remained unsolved until pictures of Thompson appeared in the paper for the murder of Ray Liuzza.

SARANDON: When Thompson's photo appeared, all three of the Lagarde children identified John Thompson as their attacker. Thompson went on trial for the carjacking first because prosecutors knew that a conviction would make him more likely to receive the death penalty for the Liuzza murder. This was in keeping with the policies of long-term district for Orleans Parrish, Harry Connick, Sr., father of the famous musician, Harry Connick, Jr.

During Connick Sr.'s nearly three-decade tenure, his office handled upwards of 30,000 cases and often faced accusations of hard line tactics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Harry Connick was tough on crime. In death penalty cases I don't think Harry would have offered a deal. Harry would have said no, you can't have it because he was very aggressive and he wanted to lock them up all together.

SARANDON: Connick's lead prosecutor was Jim Williams. Jim took great pride in his numerous death penalty convictions. He even kept a miniature electric chair on his desk.

HOLLWAY: Jim was regarded as one of the most aggressive prosecutors in the District Attorney's office. He described sliding up behind defendants in courtroom and buzzing in their ears to mimic the buzz of electricity.

SARANDON: Thompson's carjacking trial lasted only two days. The testimony of the Lagarde children was enough to convict Thompson of armed robbery. He was given the maximum sentence.

THOMPSON: Your just stop beating for a minute, you know. That was my first conviction. But he gave me the maximum, 49 and a half years. I realized that I was in some serious trouble. Because now, now we will go through the murder trial.

SARANDON: At the murder trial, both Kevin Freeman and Richard Perkins testified that Thompson killed Ray Liuzza and since Thompson had no alibi, even his defense attorney thought the situation smelled bad.

FANNING: You know, I can't make chicken salad out of chicken (EXPLETIVE DELETED). The facts are the facts, the case is the case. With the publicity, the nature of the crime, the black on white, we were one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel when we went in that courtroom.

SARANDON: If Thompson took the stand in his own defense, Jim Williams would be able to bring up the carjacking conviction.

THOMPSON: I couldn't defend myself because the first question you would ask me on the stand, have I been convicted for anything, I would have to say yes. For what? I would have to say robbery. I mean, so my lawyers advised me not to take stand in my own behalf, although we wanted to.

SARANDON: The jury convicted Thompson of killing Ray Liuzza within two hours. During sentencing, the prosecution was able to use Thompson's carjacking conviction to argue for the death penalty.

FANNING: The state called the carjacking victim in a little Catholic school uniform. And she told a chilling story of how the person that carjacked them was holding a gun to the brother's head. And she just knew both of them are going to be murdered together and she was never going to see her family. Then that's the guy who did it. And there is no question in my mind.

THOMPSON: And with that, the jury decide that had Mr. Thompson deserved to die. He killed this man and he almost killed these three kids. So they decide to sentence me to death for a crime I didn't do.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SARANDON: John Thompson was sitting on death row at Angola State Penitentiary awaiting his execution when he got an unexpected call.

THOMPSON: JT, we found you some attorneys. They're from Philadelphia, the law firm from Philadelphia. He's coming down to see you.

SARANDON: The call was from a nonprofit group devoted to appealing death sentences.

THOMPSON: I'm on death row. I've got a date of execution. Then you're sending me a lawyer saying that they're representing me. Come on. Get real.

BANKS: Gordon and I normally represent big companies and employment litigation, trade secret litigation, but this was my first case representing a criminal defendant.

SARANDON: Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney were high powered corporate lawyers with an interest in pro bono cases.

BANKS: The case itself did not suggest innocence. There was nothing we read that caused us to say, wow, this guy didn't do it.

GORDON COONEY, APPELLATE ATTORNEY: I was skeptical of his innocence. But I remember feeling a very strong sense from reading John's file that things that happened in John's trial were just fundamentally unfair.

SARANDON: Banks and Cooney went to meet their new client.

COONEY: The first time I met John Thompson was at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. And frankly we had a bit of a hard time communicating.

THOMPSON: They didn't know none about New Orleans. We had a criminal justice system here that locked up more people than our state penitentiary could hold. And so the first thing I asked them, do you really understand what you're up against?

COONEY: Neither Michael or I had any idea in 1988 that we'd spend the next quarter century working with John Thompson.

SARANDON: Michael and Gordon began preparing an appeal. Their key argument was that the prosecution's star witness, Richard Perkins, had a hidden motive in the case.

COONEY: Mr. Perkins had been promised reward money by the prosecutors and that information never made its way in front of the jury.

SARANDON: Michael and Gordon hired Elisa Abolafia who knew New Orleans inside and out as defense investigator on the case.

ABOLAFIA: There is something smells fishy, there is a reason. Humans lie. And they do things for their own advancement and their careers. Looking for some cash. People are very unscrupulous. SARANDON: Seeking a reward that today would be worth more than $30,000, Richard Perkins requested a meeting with a representative of the Liuzza family. The conversation was recorded by police.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Liuzza asked me to meet with you.

RICHARD PERKINS, WITNESS: I don't mind helping them catch them. But I'd like him to help me. And I'll help him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I know he will appreciate it.

PERKINS: You know, everybody up in there figure it's behind the reward he has, you know, but hey, we poor, you know. I ain't going say my mama couldn't use nothing like that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Well, I'll tell you what. If you can give us all this information, we'll be straight with you.

PERKINS: I just need help, you know, period. You know. Our family's large, you know, and me doing bad because my daddy's been gone all these years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe we can help you out with yours then. OK?

ABOLAFIA: People were paid to testify. You give a tip and if it leads to a conviction, you get a chunk of money. And it's very enticing.

COONEY: Perkins received over $10,000 in reward money immediately after the trial and told by the police not to mention the payment of the reward to anybody.

THOMPSON: Soon Perkins saying that he received $10,000 to do this. The jury would have thought different about that. They would not even have listened to his testimony.

SARANDON: Gordon and Michael filed their appeal in June of 1989. After five years of waiting the court finally agreed to hear their case.

BANKS: We were able to prove beyond any doubt that in fact a reward was promised and paid. And that the prosecutors failed to disclose it. And yet despite that, the judge said there was enough other evidence of John's guilt that the reward issue would not have made a difference.

SARANDON: Michael and Gordon appealed the decision. To the U.S. District Court, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and finally the U.S. Supreme Court. They all denied the appeal.

BANKS: Matters became desperate. Now we had no more appeals or challenges. On April 19th of 1999, the final death warrant was issued. We had struck out, we had failed, and he was going to die.

SARANDON: The state set an execution date.

COONEY: We drove over to Angola. John came into the room. We didn't tell him we had been coming but he knew why we were there. And he looked at us and he said, what is the date? We looked at him and said, John, it's May 20th which was basically a month off.

THOMPSON: I've been around death row at that time long enough to understand what was going on. I was like, wow, it's my turn, it's my time. And so, you know, I was trying to be strong. I was trying to like understand what is getting ready to happen. I'm getting ready to die for a crime I did not commit. Anxiety kicked in. I didn't know how to accept the reality that they're getting ready to kill me.

COONEY: And then John did a really remarkable thing. He said, my youngest son John Jr. is the first person in my family who's going to graduate from high school on May 21st. Will you please go to his graduation and make sure he is OK after I'm gone? And then he spent the next 20 minutes trying to make us feel better. It was not how could you let this happen to me, it's not what are you going to do to save my life, it was about making us feel better about what we had done for him and making sure his son would be OK. That's the kind of guy John Thompson is.

BANKS: We were mostly silent on the way from Angola to New Orleans. There was very little to be said. On the way, Gordon checked his voicemail.

SARANDON: Gordon had a message from Elisa Abolafia.

ABOLAFIA: So they're driving very solemnly like it's over as they're exiting Angola and they had no cell phone coverage for miles and miles and miles. And I'm of course calling their office in Philadelphia going berserk, I'm going nuts.

COONEY: There on my voicemail was a message from Elisa saying I found something very important. I think this is really big. You have to call me right away. End of message.


ABOLAFIA: This city is like the perfect storm for lots of crime. There's a lot of poverty, there's a lot of corruption, there's a lot of drunk tourists. There was so much crime in the paper and then the news on a regular basis, I actually never paid attention to the murder of Ray Liuzza, Jr. Until Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney contacted me.

SARANDON: With John Thompson scheduled to be executed in less than a month, defense investigator Elisa Abolafia desperately searched for answers.

ABOLAFIA: I of course was a complete nervous wreck because John was facing an execution date. May 20th. So I began with the carjacking case. First I read the police report.

SARANDON: In 1985, John Thompson was convicted of carjacking three teenagers at gunpoint. Without that conviction, Thompson would have been much less likely to get the death sentence for the murder. Elisa found reports from the first officer to respond to the carjacking scene. Warren Pope.

WARREN POPE, POLICE OFFICER: When we got there, two cars were involved in a traffic accident and I noticed some spots of like fresh wet blood. One of the victims' shoes. He was uninjured and so was his brother and sister so we assumed that it was the perpetrator's blood.

SARANDON: Police files confirmed that the carjacker's blood had been recovered from the victim's pants but Elisa wondered why that evidence had never been introduced at trial.

ABOLAFIA: So I went to the evidence room and I see that the pants were checked out by one of the D.A.'s and not return. I'm like, hello. But they were so sure that John Thompson was the carjacker. He would have tested his blood and gone, tada, Rave your crime lab report around the courtroom. That would have been your nail. So I knew that something was going on that was very unscrupulous and was deliberate. Deliberate.

BANKS: The defense was never told that the blood had been tested. So that revealed quite a bit about the prosecutors who had been handling Thompson's case.

ABOLAFIA: So my next move was to go to the crime lab. And, you know, act kind of (INAUDIBLE) tip off people that work for the police department that you're on to something naughty. I just go in and go, I need to see this old report, please. I think the crime lab report would tell me that the blood type is blood B.

BANKS: We were incredibly excited because we now knew the perpetrator had type B blood.

COONEY: But we didn't know what John's blood type was. So what we did first was we called John.

THOMPSON: My blood type? I don't know. He said, you don't know your own blood type? No. He said, you think your mama know? I said, I don't know. Call her and ask.

ABOLAFIA: I spoke to his mother. Please tell me you know his blood type. No, I don't. So I'm racking my brain, I've asked John, did you ever have surgery at any time in your life? If you did, they had to take your blood and test it.

THOMPSON: Yes. When I was a teenager I was at Charity Hospital. And, thank goodness. Again, scramble, scramble, scramble. To go my connection there who was the director of the records room. I said three weeks from now this man is going to be executed. It is a matter of life and death. Please dig it up for me and she did.

SARANDON: The hospital records showed that Thompson had blood type O.

BANKS: It was a smoking gun. It demonstrated that Thompson was innocent of the carjacking beyond question. And there is no question that the prosecution had clear obligation to turn over evidence that's favorable to the defense.

SARANDON: The carjacking victims had clearly misidentified Thompson.

FANNING: Eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. And the more traumatic the event is that they witness, the more likely it is that they're going to be wrong in their recollections and their identifications.

SARANDON: With clear evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, Michael and Gordon now felt they had no choice but to go after the legendary district attorney of Orleans Parrish, Harry Connick Sr.

HOLLWAY: Harry Connick Sr. was certainly an iconic figure. He was a big fan of jazz music and actually had a regular singing gig in New Orleans. But he was also thought of as being fairly aggressive as well. It was a stated policy in his office to provide the defense the minimum amount of information required by law and nothing more.

COONEY: We talked about the right way to handle this and rather than hold a big press conference and point the finger at the district attorney's office, we thought that the right first step was to go to Mr. Connick himself.

BANKS: Connick's reaction initially was that he wanted some time to think about it. We told him he had a matter of two, maybe three hours.

COONEY: We've got an execution date in less than two weeks. And we said if you can't agree even with these facts, we'll, you know, take the next step that we think is appropriate.

BANKS: Mr. Connick realized he had no alternative. The evidence was all too clear. It was physically and scientifically impossible for Thompson to have been the carjacker.

SARANDON: Michael, Gordon and Connick met with Judge Patrick Quinlan who had presided over both of Thompson's trials. Upon learning of the hidden blood evidence, Judge Quinlan grew furious with Connick.

BANKS: And he said he was going to hold a hearing in open court to try to determine exactly how this has happened. He wanted all the citizens of New Orleans to see.

SARANDON: At the hearing attorneys questioned the key prosecutors involved with Thompson's case including Jim Williams, the man with the little electric chair on his desk. A colleague testified that Williams was given the blood results but Williams denied it.

HOLLWAY: Williams' story is that he never received it. That he never saw it. And so at the end of the day, the choices between dishonesty and incompetence. They can either be the prosecutors who knew that evidence was being withheld in their case or they can be the prosecutors who weren't in charge of their cases when a man's life was on the line. SARANDON: Visibly upset, Judge Quinlan overturned Thompson's carjacking conviction. He also ordered a stay of execution and ordered Connick to turn over every file on record to Michael and Gordon.

BANKS: That was the first time we really got a full look into the district attorney's files in the murder case against John Thompson. And it was a moment that Gordon and I looked at each other and said, he's really innocent. He did not kill Ray Liuzza. He was not there. We knew who the murderer was. We knew how it happened for the very first time.


SARANDON: John Thompson had been on death row at Angola State Prison for 14 years. By 1999 Michael and Gordon had proven Thompson had not committed the carjacking outside the Super Dome but they had yet to prove their client was innocent of killing 34-year-old Ray Liuzza in cold blood. However, material Michael and Gordon finally received from the New Orleans D.A.'s office provided ample grounds for appeal.

BANKS: The daily police reports showed us that these witnesses, Freeman and Perkins, had told very, very different stories in 1985 before the trial as compared to what they said on the witness stand. And we began to see how their stories were contrived to secure a conviction of an innocent man.

COONEY: There were numerous pieces of evidence inconsistent with John's guilt, were consistent with Freeman's guilt, and that showed that Freeman had lied at trial in his testimony on behalf of the state.

SARANDON: After testifying that he saw Thompson murder Ray Liuzza, Kevin Freeman was given a plea deal and only served 10 months in prison.

COONEY: We also received leads from the police reports about potential witnesses who would be helpful. There was a woman who lived across the street from Mr. Liuzza and she got a very good look at the perpetrator. Miss Kelly and other witnesses who testified they saw a man with a blue steel revolver, six feet tall with close cut hair running past them. John Thompson was 5' 8" with a big bushy afro. Kevin Freeman was six feet tall, went by the name Kojak because of his close cut hair.

BANKS: Once all the evidence was examined, it was clear beyond imagination that Kevin Freeman acting alone murdered Ray Liuzza.

SARANDON: Michael and Gordon now believed they had a strong case for a new trial.

COONEY: We had an evidentiary hearing in front of Judge Quinlan and Quinlan vacated the death sentence but he refused to vacate guilt.

BANKS: Judge Quinlan refused to grant a new trial. We were devastated. Yes, it was wonderful to have John Thompson spared from execution but we were still looking at a man in his 30s who is going to be facing the rest of his life in jail.

THOMPSON: So you're going to take the death penalty back and give me a life sentence. I was scared to death even more so now. You're telling me, I will never go home again. That didn't give me no relief. None whatsoever. I was doomed.

SARANDON: Michael and Gordon appealed the judge's decision. They knew this would be Thompson's last chance for a new trial.

COONEY: John was going to go free or spend the rest of his life in prison. Our arguments were basically twofold. First that carjacking conviction had been used to keep John from being able to testify in his own defense in the murder case. And secondly we argued that all of the evidence that we had amassed had shown that John Thompson was innocent of the Liuzza murder.

SARANDON: Michael and Gordon filed their appeal in February of 2002. Five months later, they received the decision.

BANKS: I'll never forget it. A reporter called and said what do you think about this decision? And I asked her to read it to me. And I said skip to the end. Skip to the end.

SARANDON: The last line read, conviction and sentence reversed.

BANKS: I called Gordon into my office. I couldn't get the words out.

COONEY: I remember it was July 17th, 4:30 in the afternoon.

BANKS: I was tongue tied. I said -- I couldn't -- he said new trial? I said yes. We hugged. We were ecstatic.

SARANDON: But as Michael and Gordon began preparing for the retrial, they got an unsolicited offer from the D.A.'s office. Harry Connick Sr. had retired and the new D.A. had run for office on an anti- corruption campaign. Now he wanted to make a deal.

COONEY: The district attorney's office was not really eager to go and try this case again based on the evidence as it then existed. John could plea to some lesser offense and be immediately released from prison.

THOMPSON: I'm like, hell no, I'm not pleading guilty to nothing. After all this stuff, we can improve, these people are still trying to make me plead guilty to something I did not do.

BANKS: The jury got it wrong twice before. There was some risk that a jury would get it wrong again no matter how strong the evidence was. Much as we were convinced of John's innocence, we had to think about getting him out of jail as our first priority.

THOMPSON: Michael was like, John, we're not talking to you no more as attorneys. We're getting ready to talk to you as a friend. We can't control the mind of 12 people. We can only present them the facts. If 12 members come back and say you're guilty, could you handle that? Is it fair on your mom? Is it fair on your children? On one hand, to walk out that door. On the other hand you might stay the rest of your life. So before you make a quick decision like that, why don't you think about it?


SARANDON: In April 2003, John Thompson faced the decision whether to plead guilty and walk away from prison or stand trial and risk the rest of his life behind bars.

THOMPSON: I didn't kill nobody, I'm not pleading guilty to nothing. So I got on the phone. May mom said baby, I want you home. I don't care what them people say. I know you didn't do it. I want you home. So I called the attorneys and said, come on. Let's do it. It's time for me to be with my family.

BANKS: Gordon and I went down to New Orleans to be there when John got out of jail to have our big celebration.

COONEY: I was figuring out where John was going to go after he was released from prison. And a criminal defense lawyer walked into the conference room where I was working and all the color had drained out of his face and he said the district attorney's office has pulled the deal.

BANKS: We had thought John was walking out of jail the next day. This was five days before the trial was to start and the D.A. said no deal. We go to trial.

SARANDON: It is turned out, the victim's family had learned of the plea deal and voiced their objections to the district attorney.

COONEY: Michael and I go to the prison. And John again put on a very brave face. And he said, you know, I didn't want that plea. It was going to hang over my head for the rest of my life. I didn't do this. You guys are going to win this case but we've just lost four days of preparation because we thought there was no trial.

BANKS: We need more time to prepare for the case and he said you won't do that. We're going to win this case. I can't spend another day in this place. As we walk down a very long corridor, we turned around and looked back. And there was John with his head in his hands. We thought he was getting out of jail the next day. And now we found out that he had to stand trial with a risk of spending the rest of his life in prison.

SARANDON: On the morning of May 7th, 2003, John Thompson stood before the same judge in the same courtroom where he had been sentenced to death 18 years earlier. But Michael and Gordon had a problem. They couldn't attack the damaging testimony of Kevin Freeman. The man they believed murdered Ray Liuzza.

BANKS: Freeman was shot dead in 1995 while committing a robbery.

SARANDON: With Freeman dead, his previous testimony stood as evidence that Thompson had committed the Liuzza murder. BANKS: We had all this evidence that freeman had lied in his original testimony and we wouldn't be able to use that evidence effectively if we couldn't cross examine him live on the stand.

SARANDON: Michael and Gordon proposed an unorthodox solution. After Freeman's testimony was read into the record, they would cross-examine the empty witness chair as if Freeman was on the stand.

BANKS: We took the evidence of the lies and put them into the form of questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You told the jury you didn't know that John Thompson was going to rob someone. Isn't it true, however, that you sat out to rob someone?

SARANDON: Silence hung in the air after each question was posed giving the jury time to imagine Freeman's response.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You suggested in your testimony that you stole nothing from Mr. Liuzza at all. But you admitted you stole all of Mr. Liuzza's property, didn't you?

BANKS: We asked a series of questions culminating in the final one, which was, isn't it true, Mr. Freeman, that you and you alone murdered Ray Liuzza? The jury knew where we were coming from and they were able to see the lies in Kevin Freeman's original story.

SARANDON: Informant Richard Perkins also took the stand. This time his testimony was devastating to the prosecution.

BANKS: Perkins admitted that one of the prosecutors put him in the room with Kevin Freeman before they testified at the original criminal murder trial and said you guys get your story straight.

SARANDON: Perkins also admitted receiving $10,500 after Thompson was convicted.

BANKS: We were able to show why Perkins implicated Thompson. Perkins was a street kid who needed money desperately. He saw a chance for more money than he had ever seen or imagined in any one place in 1985 and he went for it.

SARANDON: And for the first time in 18 years, John Thompson was finally able to take the stand and proclaim his innocence.

BANKS: You could hear a pin drop. I mean literally. He finally had a chance to explain to a jury why he had a murder weapon.

COONEY: John Thompson's testimony was that he did have the gun but he had bought that from Kevin Freeman.

BANKS: Kevin Freeman sold the murder weapon to an unwitting John Thompson. John was involved in buying and selling some stolen property. It's not something he's proud of.

THOMPSON: I was a dope dealer. He was a burglar, he was a robber, and you wanted dope, you need to bring me some type of collateral. You bringing me TV, gun, jewelry. That was part of a drug trade. Being offense. I'm sorry. That's how that came about. Being in possession of the murder weapon.

SARANDON: The defense rested and the case was handed over to the jury.

THOMPSON: The jury get up and leave with your fate in your hands and you try on smile, all of them passing right by you, all of them looking at your face like for the last time.

BANKS: The pressure was enormous. It was almost like you couldn't breathe.

COONEY: There's a lot of nervous energy and small talk that goes on.

THOMPSON: But before we could sit down and (INAUDIBLE), the jury reached a decision, boy, I was so scared because I said, what? How? That fast?

SARANDON: The jury took only 35 minutes to agree on a verdict.

COONEY: So the jury files back in and whenever a jury come back, you're looking at every juror trying to look for some hint. And it seems like an eternity.

BANKS: And the heart meanwhile now is racing faster and faster and breathing is becoming increasingly challenging. This was the most agonizing moment either of us had ever had in our careers. And in our personal lives. Then the judge asked that the verdict be read aloud.


SARANDON: The retrial of John Thompson lasted only a day and a half. The jury took 35 minutes to return their verdict.

THOMPSON: When the jury come back, the judge ask them, has the jury reached a decision. And the jury say yes, your honor. And then they say will the defendant rise.

COONEY: There is incredible tension and nervous energy. And you just don't know, because juries can do anything.

BANKS: Each word slows down in time. It's "we the jury, find the defendant, John Thompson not guilty." I can't describe that.

COONEY: I literally felt like I was lifted off my chair.

THOMPSON: I looked around at my mom and my son. The relief I felt of knowing that I'm going home. This is finally behind me. This is finally over with.

BANKS: We each gave him a big hug. It was a -- it was a moment.

SARANDON: After 18 years in prison, John Thompson was finally going home. But aside from his freedom, he was walking away with little else.

THOMPSON: Kick in the behind and $10. Didn't have no compensation available for nobody like myself, no matter how many years you do in prison, you get out, you've got to fend for yourself.

COONEY: So we approached the district attorney's office, and we said, look, John lost the last 18 years of his life. You all nearly executed him eight times. You all need to do the right thing. And we were told in no uncertain terms that we could just jump in the lake.

BANKS: So we filed a lawsuit against the New Orleans District Attorney's Office.

SARANDON: They proposed a settlement of $500,000, hoping to get half that amount.

BANKS: Under the United States Constitution, prosecutors are required to give the defendants evidence that is favorable to the defense. And these prosecutors did not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your job is to prosecute the guy and seek a conviction. That's your job.

SARANDON: ADA Bruce Whittaker received the blood report showing Thompson didn't commit the carjacking. In a deposition, Michael asked him if prosecutors were obliged to disclose evidence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The understanding was, if you disclose exculpatory evidence.

BANKS: Exculpatory meaning what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a good question. I don't know if that was -- that's the kind of stuff that I think was never perhaps clarified to the extent it should have been clarified.

BANKS: Was there training for prosecutors on what that obligation meant?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't recall there ever being training on that. I don't recall there being training, period.

SARANDON: Jim Williams, who prosecuted Thompson, was asked who decided what evidence would be shared.

JIM WILLIAMS, PROSECUTOR: It was up to the attorney trying the case. We were expected to follow the rules.

BANKS: Were there any other guidelines that you can recall as to how you were to make that determination?


BANKS: When we asked the prosecutors about their knowledge of the law that requires that favorable evidence be produced, they got it all wrong. The district attorney's office had a handbook. It was flat- out wrong.

COONEY: Their failures of understanding were frankly pretty surprising.

HARRY CONNICK SR., FORMER DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I stopped reading law books when I was -- when I became the D.A.

SARANDON: A jury concluded that under Harry Connick's leadership, the D.A.'s office failed to provide pertinent evidence and violated John Thompson's constitutional rights.

BANKS: In 2007, the jury awarded John Thompson $14 million.

SARANDON: But the D.A.'s office would appeal the decision for the next four years. Meanwhile, John Thompson transformed his life, building an organization called Resurrection after Exoneration to help exonerees after prison. He's also become a leading spokesman against prosecutorial misconduct.

HOLLWAY: It's really extraordinary to see John as a tenth grade high school drop-out become a really very compelling advocate the way he has taken this tragedy that happened in his life and turned into it a force for positive change.

SARANDON: After years of appeals, the D.A.'s office finally argued their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2011, the bitterly divided justices voted 5-4 to deny the $14 million award.

BANKS: Five justices of the Supreme Court believed the New Orleans District Attorney's Office could not be liable because there was not a prior pattern of similar misconduct.

SARANDON: The majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, found that even though Connick's office withheld evidence in the Thompson case, that was not enough to prove a pattern. And yet a study done in 2008 reported that during Harry Connick Sr.'s tenure, in one out of every four cases where the death penalty was imposed, evidence was withheld.

THOMPSON: That was crazy. If that is not a pattern, I don't know what is. So who is going to get the last laugh? Jim Williams.

SARANDON: In the photo of Jim Williams with the electric chair, of the five faces visible, all of them were released from death row.

THOMPSON: In my mind, we should charge him with attempted murder. This district attorney using false information that he know is false to kill you. It's premeditated. So we're saying that he could get away with murder? What make him so special? The only thing he was hiding behind was district attorney badge.

COONEY: Unfortunately, the Thomas opinion is the law of the land. And it gives me great concern.

BANKS: Make no bones about it. Prosecutors are now a lot less accountable for what they do because they know that if they don't produce evidence, there is virtually no sanction for them or the office.

SARANDON: John Thompson's activism continues to sound the alarm against the Supreme Court decision and innocent people being found guilty and executed for crimes they did not commit.

THOMPSON: I'm thinking about my children. The same thing could happen to them. A person could have that much power over your life without being hold accountable for it. I can throw the evidence away and still try to kill you. Whether you did it or not, without no consequences. That's scary. That's should be scary to everybody in the whole world.