On Tuesday, our family lost John Thompson - “J.T.” to all who knew him. Words cannot do justice to the incredible life he lived. Through all the interviews, documentary appearances, and the book, Killing Time (profiling his wrongful conviction), experience on Angola’s Death Row, exoneration, and litigation against the system that tried to murder him… the essence of J.T. is so much more than that.
John was a loving husband and proud father. He was also a soldier for justice, leaving behind his many comrades inside and outside prison walls, on and off Death Rows, in Louisiana and beyond. At VOTE's monthly meeting yesterday, we paid tribute to our brother John, and re-doubled our efforts for justice.
Unlike most any of us, John had his dying breaths on many occasions, having been scheduled for execution multiple times during his 18 years of incarceration. Each time, he thought of others. Each time, trying to help them with their lives after he was gone. Since his release, John’s living breaths were spent seeking justice, particularly to reform a system that allows prosecutors to act with impunity. John founded Resurrection After Exoneration, a transitional house and community space a few blocks down St. Bernard from our VOTE office. He would frequently be spotted on the sidewalk, outside the RAE house, carrying building supplies in one hand and engaged in a heavy conversation with someone who flagged him down. Always peppering his intense insights with humor, almost in defiance of a system that failed to strip John of his humanity.
John knew he was not alone, and he sued the Orleans District Attorney’s Office, claiming they had a pattern of hiding evidence (as they did in his case), and other Brady violations that led to the many wrongful convictions in the nation’s most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state. Although Thompson v. Connick was successful in the lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced the lack of repercussions for prosecutors; they pinned the blame on an individual prosecutor- basically treating the lawyers as independent contractors responsible for their own ethics. In John’s case, it was all-too-convenient that the blame was placed on a deceased member of the D.A.’s Office.
Following John’s case at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Orleans D.A. was a defendant in a similar case of unethical behavior. Seeing the same lawyers for the second time, the Supreme Court judges laid into the lawyer sent by D.A. Leon Cannizzaro to defend their office. They questioned whether the lawyer even understood the Brady Rule (requiring prosecutors to turn over all evidence to the defense, and that they take responsibility for any police misconduct). In that second case, Juan Smith won and came off Death Row. A comment was made to John, suggesting that if his case had gone second he would have kept the $14 million jury award. “Nah,” John replied. “If Juan went first, they would’ve killed him. And then when I come up, they definitely gonna make me lose- otherwise it makes Juan’s case look suspect. At least this way, Juan’s still alive.”
It is not an easy thing to look into the eyes of people who tried to kill you. The incredible courage shown by John, to stand against every death penalty advocate, judges, prosecutors and state legislators, is what we need from all our leaders. The prosecutor who won a death sentence against John, Jim Williams, ironically practices criminal defense law from his office on the West Bank- having spent years taking pride in the men he put on death row, several of whom were later proven innocent. Most innocent people around the country are never able to reach the tip of the iceberg, like John, and prove it. Most either live out their sentences, while some die in prison.
John responded to his exoneration by helping others, and working to prevent the next wrongful conviction. He would call on us all to do that and more.
John demanded we work towards electing officials (including judges and the next District Attorney) who believe in accountability for misconduct and community oversight of our criminal justice system.
John showed us how much we need to work to create strong rehabilitation and reentry programs led by us, for us, to build a community that creates a space for everyone to survive and thrive.
He would want us to fight with all of our morality, civility, creativity and love to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana.
John was a soldier, a brother, and a friend. His joy and power will never be forgotten. We will share more information regarding services, and ways to honor his legacy, as they arise.