Sunday Commentary: The Sad Death of John Thompson

John Thompson and fellow exoneree Don Diolosa along with Students United for Reform and Justice at their November 17, 2011 appearance at UC Davis’ King Hall Law School

In November 2011, I had the pleasure of seeing John Thompson – who spent 14 years on death row before he was exonerated one month before his scheduled execution, based on the prosecution’s withholding of exculpatory evidence during trial – speak at King Hall with fellow exoneree Don Diolosa.

He was eventually exonerated but his prosecutors were never punished as, in March of 2011 the US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, overturned the case that Mr. Thompson had won against them that would have given him $14 million for his years on death row.

That decision, handed down by Justice Clarence Thomas who ruled that the district attorney cannot be held responsible for the single act of a lone prosecutor, has been called one of the cruelest Supreme Court decisions ever.

Several weeks before he was scheduled to be executed in 1999, Mr. Thompson’s private investigators discovered evidence that the prosecutors had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence that would have cleared him of his robbery charge.

The strongest evidence was that the blood sample at the crime scene did not match Mr. Thompson’s blood type. It is worse than that, because this was known to the prosecutors 14 years before and excluded Mr. Thompson as the perpetrator. But it gets even worse than that, because in order to make sure the defense did not find out about this evidence, the assistant DA who was prosecuting the case took the jeans from the police evidence locker and threw them away.

Here is my 2011 write up on John Thompson.

In an April 2011 op-ed penned by John Thompson himself, he describes his 1985 arrest in New Orleans.

“I remember the police coming to my grandmother’s house – we all knew it was the cops because of how hard they banged on the door before kicking it in. My grandmother and my mom were there, along
with my little brother and sister, my two sons – John Jr., 4, and Dedric, 6 – my girlfriend and me. The officers had guns drawn and were yelling. I guess they thought they were coming for a murderer. All the children were scared and crying. I was 22.”

He continued, “They took me to the homicide division, and played a cassette tape on which a man I knew named Kevin Freeman accused me of shooting a man. He had also been arrested as a suspect in the murder. A few weeks earlier he had sold me a ring and a gun; it turned out that the ring belonged to the victim and the gun was the murder weapon.

“My picture was on the news, and a man called in to report that I looked like someone who had recently tried to rob his children. Suddenly I was accused of that crime, too. I was tried for the robbery first. My lawyers never knew there was blood evidence at the scene, and I was convicted based on the victims’ identification.

“After that, my lawyers thought it was best if I didn’t testify at the murder trial,” he said. “So I never defended myself, or got to explain that I got the ring and the gun from Kevin Freeman. And now that I officially had a history of violent crime because of the robbery conviction, the prosecutors used it to get the death penalty.”

Eventually both of those convictions would be overturned.

You would think that John Thompson would be bitter about his experience – and he was. In 2011, he wrote, “The prosecution rests, but I can’t.”

And this week, at just the age of 55 he died of a heart attack. A sad ending in a tragic case. We have now seen the toll that wrongful convictions take on people, as many have died not long after release and all at a premature age.

Radley Balko this week wrote, “The first time I interviewed John Thompson, I was a little taken aback.” He said he began the interview asking if anyone had ever apologized to him, to which Mr. Thompson went off on a rant.

He said: “Tell me what the hell would they be sorry for. They tried to kill me. To apologize would mean they’re admitting the system is broken. That everyone around them is broken. It’s the same motherf—–g system that’s protecting them,” he said, jabbing his finger into the air for emphasis. He added, “What would I do with their apology anyway? Sorry. Huh. Sorry you tried to kill me? Sorry you tried to commit premeditated murder? No. No thank you. I don’t need your apology.”

Mr. Balko writes, “I hadn’t expected that. I had interviewed exonerees before, and I had always been struck by their grace and their unfathomable lack of bitterness. I still admire that about those particular exonerees. But there’s also something to be said for anger. We admire grace. Anger compels a reaction. Thompson’s anger was righteous. It was unimpeachable. And once you know the circumstances of his two convictions – of what happened before, during and after his incarceration – it’s really the only emotion that makes any sense.”

My experiences are very similar – I have met and known a lot of exonerees and am struck by their grace and forgiveness.

We have covered a lot of cases this week that are flat-out ridiculous. I reserve a special place for the innocent who are robbed of their freedom and years of their lives. I think of my friend Ajay Dev frequently, as I look at our photo that hangs above my desk. But there is plenty of injustice to spare beyond just wrongful convictions.

As Mr. Balko argues, there is something to be said for anger. “We need more people to be as angry as John Thompson was.”

I’ve always been surprised at the lack of anger that people have when they get exonerated – especially in cases with prosecutorial misconduct and cover ups.  Think where you were 18 years ago today and now imagine having that life experience erased and having to spend that time in prison while completely innocent of the crime you were convicted of.

John Thompson’s case was bad because of the level of corruption, but far from the worst.  Think about Ricky Jackson, who in 2015 was exonerated after 40 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.  He was 18 when convicted of the crime.

The witness who put him in jail said in 2013 “that police detectives threatened to put his parents in jail and coerced him into implicating Jackson and brothers Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman in the slaying of salesman Harold Franks outside a corner store.”

A lawsuit alleges that eight officers, including detectives and their supervisors, were involved in framing the three.   Can you imagine – you go to prison at age 18 and are released at 57?  That’s your life.

Maybe more people need to be angry over this injustice.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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