Ode to JT
There was no spirit, and no force, that fought for criminal justice like John Thompson.
JT died on October 3rd. He is no longer here in body, but his spirit endures in those of us whose lives he touched – and inspired.
JT was intense, insightful, creative, smart as a whip, intolerant of B.S., loving, hilarious, and willing to work without reservation for whatever and whoever really mattered. At 22, the young father, son, and small businessman in his low-income community was accused of murdering the son of a prominent New Orleanian. He didn’t do it, and the lead prosecutors knew that. Nonetheless, somebody needed to be blamed. So the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office threw itself into securing the execution of John Thompson, an innocent man.
To secure JT's execution, the Orleans D.A.’s office intentionally manipulated the evidence in not just that murder case, but also the separate carjacking required to enable prosecutors to pursue a sentence of death. JT being a black man in 1980’s New Orleans, it should surprise no one that the prosecution’s scheme worked. Having secured the wrongful conviction of John Thompson for both the high profile murder and the predicate offense necessary to execute him for that offense, the state of Louisiana sent JT to Angola’s Death Row to live out the days until his execution – where he would smell the flesh of those being electrocuted as he awaited his turn.
While JT fought for his life from his cell on death row, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office fought for his immediate execution with equal vigor – and exponentially greater power. On the eve of his seventh and final execution date, JT told his pro bono lawyers not to “appeal” again, but try to find the evidence to prove it wasn’t him. By all accounts it was a Hail Mary, but after a shocking series of rejectionsof his seemingly meritorious appeals, it was the only real chance left.
Fortunately, his lawyers engaged just the right investigator, Elisa Abolafiya, who just as shockingly discovered the blood tests that ultimately proved JT’s innocence. After 18 years of torturous absurdity – capped by the DA’s office trying again to convict and execute this man they had already tried to frame and execute – JT finally secured his freedom when a predominantly white New Orleans jury took only 35 minutes of deliberation to declare him “Not Guilty.”
JT was no longer in a death spiral. He was no longer an innocent man imprisoned in a cage until the state could finally execute him.
JT was free. And he made the most of it.
Death row is devastating, isolating, brutalizing, terrifying, disgusting, dehumanizing, de-sensitizing, disorienting… The list is exponentially longer, deeper, and more intense, but I can’t even begin to say. From the outside we can get a sense, but only those who have been placed on death row can possibly fathom the extent of that existential and physical hell. What’s more, innocent people sent to death row, awaiting execution for things they did not do – instead of simply living the lives they deserved – experience an absurdity that would literally drive many people crazy.
But death row didn’t drive JT crazy. JT was always crazy – like a fox. A natural leader, an extremely intelligent person, one who understands people and power, and a person with charms and drives people like few others I’ve ever met, he walked out of that prison straight to his first job, with Innocence Project New Orleans. Luck being a residue of design, and with IP-NO being housed in “The Justice Center” alongside Habitat for Humanity, JT was also provided with a house to live in within weeks of his exoneration. That was pivotal, because upon his release from wrongful conviction JT was given nothing to enable him to re-build a life for himself and his family – after everything had been stripped from him during the formative years of his adulthood, which he had to instead dedicate to simply fighting for his life against a state intent upon killing him.
JT was always a leader, too. With IP-NO’s help, he started Resurrection After Exoneration (RAE), his organization to support and house other men returning from wrongful conviction at Angola. (Including those who had been on death row with him, many of whom are pictured on Jim William's electric chair, above, and his good friend Glenn Ford.)
JT proceeded to successfully launch and maintain RAE, with a critical boost coming through the donation of a house in New Orleans to provide housing and support for the exonerated men. Through RAE, and with the support of fellowships and support from Echoing Green, Open Society Foundation, and others, he created and directed the housing and support programs that RAE provides to the men that continue to be exonerated from wrongful incarceration at Angola.
When I presented training meetings in New Orleans for the Innocence Policy Network and 8th Amendment Project over the years, I would often walk the 70 or so attendees over to the RAE house for our social events. Pre-arranged by JT, he and his team would provide us all with a warm welcome, a phenomenal New Orleans dinner, and amazing live music from very local bands performing in RAE’s inspiring community room. All of which invested our reception monies in the people of RAE instead of our hotel or nearby restaurant – at a fraction of the cost, no less. That was JT.
The people who attended those affairs were uniformly blown away by the experience. Not surprisingly, everything within that experience was JT’s idea, with every touch in the evening literally flowing from him, his friends, his supporters, his community, and ultimately his mission in life. That mission was to bring people together, to live some life together while we fought like hell, as smartly as we could, to secure all the justice we could for people who couldn’t secure their own.
On the policy front, JT and I worked intensively on the fundamental failures of America's systems for ensuring the integrity of prosecutorial action, which plague criminal justice across America. JT had secured a damage award of $14 million from Orleans Parish for their intentional violation of his civil rights in their pursuit of his wrongful conviction and near-execution. But that was taken away by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in JT’s case Connick v. Thompson. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court declared that he should not receive a penny as remedy, relying on America's system of prosecutorial oversight in America to provide essentially the exclusive remedy in cases like John’s – even where prosecutors undeniably tried to execute a person while knowingly and illegally preventing the accused from accessing the evidence that would prove innocence.
After this New York Times piece from JT appeared in the New York Times in the wake of that decision, the Innocence Project started working on a plan with JT and others to call the question about how prosecutorial oversight actually works in America – or doesn’t. The entire Innocence Network, represented by a range of people similarly wrongfully convicted because of prosecutorial malfeasance, had already expressed their concerns about the same. In a letter to the U.S. Attorney General and others (see pp. 4-5, here) they expressed their serious doubt about the same, noting that in the wake of their cases the systems of prosecutorial oversight allegedly responsible for addressing and correcting the prosecutorial misconduct in their case existed on paper only, and seemingly did not function at all.
Our effort set up expert forums at law schools in five different states, to explore their systems for ensuring prosecutorial oversight and how well those systems actually functioned. To a one, the panelists – reflecting a range of roles across the criminal justice and legal oversight systems – agreed that major work needed to be done to ensure that prosecutors were properly educated, trained, and overseen both internally and externally with regard to their specific legal and ethical responsibilities, given the amount of responsibility and discretion society places in their positions, to secure justice. (N.B., Our discussions sought to be not to impugn all prosecutorial action, but and though the stories often involved “the worst of the worst,” our pursuit was focused squarely on helping prosecutors clearly understand and work within their proper bounds.)
We wrote the fundamental draft report and recommendations to reflect what we learned in those forums soon after they were completed, but the report encountered obstacles that slowed its release for years. I had moved on from the Innocence Project at that point, but circled back to the issue in my next position, at the 8th Amendment Project, where prosecutorial misconduct was a terrible example of why the death penalty is an extremely unwise – and a cruel and unusual – form of punishment.
Working with a range of (already overworked, but endlessly committed) death row lawyers, law students, and other supporters, JT and I then led the drafting of a U.S. Department of Justice petition for justice in the wake of the uncontested violation of JT’s constitutional rights by the Orleans Parish prosecutors. That violation had never been remediated or remedied by any of the exhaustive list of bar oversight entities and courts at every level of government to which he had appealed. The U.S. Department of Justice essentially represented the “court of last resort” after all others refused to provide justice for Mr. John Thompson despite the affirmed violation of his most fundamental constitutional rights.
As explained in Mr. Thompson’s cover letter that accompanied his filing, the petition and its resolution would address a fundamental question about America. If no government within the United States of America was going to meaningfully address the extraordinary prosecutorial misconduct employed by government employees to intentionally wrongfully execute an innocent person like JT, then does any person like JT actually have civil rights in America? Or do those rights exist only on paper, or only for certain kinds of people?
At bottom, JT wanted America to answer for the atrocities that happened in his case, and why nobody in government would do anything about it. That had become JT’s lifelong quest for justice. The quest was for him, but far more important to him was that he pursue it for others like him, who would inevitably suffer the same if nothing was done.
To this day, nothing has been done. Filed in August, 2016, the DOJ’s Civil Rights division responded to the petition by explaining the process, timelines, and the importance of the fact gathering that would follow in their process. That response was a gesture of concern, interest, and willingness to pursue what would be an uphill battle regardless, which JT appreciated – yet which still left his question unresolved for the foreseeable future. With the election of the current President, and his administration’s subsequent rhetoric, action, and staff changeover, neither JT nor I expected DOJ to significantly pursue his petition at all in the coming years.
Yet JT didn’t rest on his quest for justice. He was always also focused on the importance of good defense lawyers, and how rare they were for poor black men and women accused of crimes in New Orleans – and across the country. This past March 18th, JT, Wonderland Studios producer John Moore, and I – with strong support from the staff of the Orleans Public Defender – presented a very successful pilot of Concerts for Indigent Defense in New Orleans, with serious coverage across local TV and radio talk shows, newspapers and magazines before, during, and after the concerts. Our goal was to do what we could within the miniscule budget we had for year one, with a year two goal of spreading the effort across the country through the defender and local music communities.
In fact JT, John, and I had had our first set of serious conversations about putting the ball in motion for 2018 earlier this month. We were particularly excited about the possibilities, as a re-zoning of RAE’s neighborhood (which is adjacent to the French Quarter) led to a luxury hotel now being built in what was until recently an open-air drug market across the street. A little known fact about JT is that he and his wife Laverne had successfully run a coffee shop on Canal Street for two years after Katrina (until the recovery led to a major rent increase for the business). In light of the hotel being built, and the re-zoning in RAE’s neighborhood, JT was transforming RAE’s barbershop into a coffee shop, where the RAE House residents could work. He’d also secured a live entertainment license for the community room, and he and John were about to start building an internet broadcasting studio within RAE, to provide voice to community members, organizations, advocates and musicians. It was to be called “One Freedom Studio,” and would serve to integrate RAE's existing community with that to be expected with the gentrification of his neighborhood that was clearly on its way.
JT was excited about this plan, and had already put fundamental pieces in motion. From my perspective, all the pieces really could fit, for significant potential success. It was truly exciting. It seemed JT had finally identified the means of pulling all the pieces of his vision, his talents, his projects, and his people together, into a sustainable project that truly could deliver – and serve as a model for others.
I last spoke with JT on Friday, September 29th. He, John, and I had just finished a long call where we had the pieces in place, and were going to frame out a course of action to secure an initial bump of support for the first phase of it all. JT was going to arrange a follow-up call for early the next week. On Tuesday I thought to call him, but was busy and there was no real rush. The next day I received a call from a friend with the devastating news that JT had just died of a heart attack. His body was 56 years old.
I’m not shocked that he died; just heartbroken. He’d had heart attack years ago, and while he often said he should be getting some exercise, and neither slept nor ate in patterns a doctor would recommend, he also couldn’t slow down enough to take care of it all. It's hard to expect a long life from someone who suffered as he had – and who never stopped suffering from his intensely harrowing death row experience, despite his tenacity and strength of spirit.
He was my favorite person to work with, on many levels – and one of my best friends. I miss him terribly, and will forever. I'll admit he wasn’t always easy to work with, but he was always my favorite project partner regardless. He had the kind of vision, commitment, integrity, and collaborative nature that I admire and (on my best days) share. Many others feel the same. I could not make it to New Orleans last Friday, to celebrate his life together with so many of those people when his body was laid to rest. I suppose that's why I found myself writing this piece.
John Thompson is no longer with us, but his spirit was indomitable. It will live on, through the work of all of us who respect who he was, what he endured and exposed at the hands of our criminal justice system, and who demand accountability and improvements at all levels of our criminal justice system to protect the rights and liberties of all people – not just those favored in American society.
I have been blessed to work with many excellent people in my career, from all walks of life. My appreciation for the privilege and pleasure of working alongside John Thompson could not be higher. (Unless, of course, we could have fulfilled his mission while he was still with us.) I think of JT throughout every day, and fully intend to continue to pursue the work that can prevent what JT suffered, and honors his endless and insightful struggle for justice in America – for everyone.
Forgive me if JT’s case seems a fantastic story. The myriad details of his wrongful conviction and quest for justice – for himself and others – are far richer than I can possibly describe. I know this in part because of the years I’ve spent talking, planning, and working with JT to pursue justice for other wrongfully convicted men like him – and the many others who could be next.
The stories he would tell about his case, the District Attorney’s office, the court system, and the Orleans Parish politics that greased his wrongful death sentence, as well as the acts of fundamental disregard for virtually everyone like JT – and their families, and their communities… You almost wouldn’t believe. If you’ve seen The Wire, and realize that New Orleans may even be worse than Baltimore, then perhaps you can imagine…
I loved working with JT because we got down into all elements of the work – and we truly enjoyed and appreciated each other while we did. This is probably because, as we realized the first time we spent significant time together, we were surprisingly similar in all sorts of ways. (Including our strong but sometimes challenging marriages to two powerful women.)
At our essence as humans, the primary difference between us is that JT was black and I was white in America. This point crystallized itself in a moment we had during a conference we were attending together in Austin a few years ago. I asked him to take a detour with me into a used record store before we went back to the hotel. He laughed, “What the hell do you want to go to a record store for?” I told him I’d started buying used records back in the '80s when CD’s came out and I couldn’t afford them – but could afford the great used records that others were dumping for next to nothing.
As I was explaining that, I realized how much that said about our life paths. I told him, “Come to think of it JT, that’s really the main difference between us. When I was in my early 20’s, the path for me was college. You got sent to death row.”
It was a lot for both of us to digest. There’s nothing comfortable about it – particularly among friends. Yet we talked about it afterward, and then kept moving on because we both knew it was fundamentally true, and wrong… And yet nothing that justified throwing away the friendship we’d developed despite that disgusting and guilt-laden reality. It was not a reality we created, but were ultimately working against, which enabled us to embrace it as pertained to our relationship. That main difference between JT and me is one intensely rooted in America, which flows from America's history, and which is at the core of every community across the entire country. The destiny of every life in America simply begins there.
Therein lies the fundamental problem with justice in America.
I'd like to express my deep appreciation to Haywood Fennell, Sr., for his inspiration to write this piece for JT – a man he didn’t know, but could feel and appreciate from a thousand miles away.
And finally, I send you off with this musical expression of reverence for the life of my dear friend, from one rascally New Orleans genius to another. (Both of whom had twisted connections to Orleans Parish D.A. Harry Connick, Sr., more about which I'll likely write in an upcoming post…)