Last Wednesday, I went to Washington, DC and watched as the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Thompson v. Connick. I've spent a lot of time writing about John Thompson and his life, and more recently talking to people about the case. As a result, my voice mail was full that afternoon with messages that all asked the same thing: How'd it go?
There are a lot of ways to answer that question. The honest answer is, it's impossible to know. I like to think that the Court will see how dangerous it would be to provide absolute immunity from prosecution to a DA's Office like the one that Harry Connick, Sr. championed in New Orleans for three decades. Connick allowed (and, in my opinion, actually encouraged) his prosecutors to compile one of the nation's worst records of mishandling exculpatory evidence, with predictable results -- multiple people wrongfully imprisoned, while the actual perpetrators of their crimes continued to roam the streets.
I hope that the amicus brief filed on Thompson's behalf by a bipartisan group of ex-government lawyers who believe that conduct like Connick's should be held accountable by civil liability would provide whatever additional persuasion was not provided by Thompson's excellent lawyers. And I'm optimistic that Justices Alito and Sotomayor, both former prosecutors, will embrace this chance to hold their profession to the high moral standard that it requires. But the Justices have their own opinions, and their questions are not necessarily indicative of their actual beliefs on the merits -- so we'll have to see.
A different answer to "how'd it go," though, was displayed at the lunch held after the argument at a steak house on Capitol Hill. Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney, John's pro bono lawyers for more than 22 years, held the lunch and invited their crack Supreme Court preparation team and a group of family members and special guests. John Thompson sat at the center of the long rectangular table with his wife Laverne.
The group talked excitedly about the argument, and the challenging questions asked by the Justices to both Gordon and Kyle Duncan, the lawyer representing the Orleans Parish DA's Office, and predictions and congratulations few back and forth across the table. But things quieted down as Gordon rose and held his glass aloft.
Gordon is a man whose deep emotions and convictions are kept carefully controlled, and with typical humility he rose and thanked the team that had prepared him for his once-in-a-lifetime chance to test his mettle against our nation's top jurists. Typically Gordon, it was a brief, heartfelt statement of thanks.
Michael Banks stood next. Michael had been gracious in suggesting that Gordon should argue the case before the Court, and it was with a smile on his face and nothing but admiration in his heart that he said, "You all know me, and so you know how hard it was for me to have Gordon talk to the Supreme Court for 30 minutes and say nothing. I'm not going to let that go again. Gordon gave a masterful argument today, and positioned us as well as we could possibly be positioned to win this argument. But I want to also acknowledge something else. A lot of people have asked me and Gordon what John would do with the $14 million that is hanging in the balance.
"Let me tell you this," Michael continued. "I hope that John gets that money, but John has never once -- never once -- asked us when he's going to get that money. He has never once acted as if the money was the key issue. I think we all know that John and Laverne could use that money, and I think we all believe that John is entitled to that money, for any number of reasons. But John also believes that this case is about making a statement about what's right, and how the world should be. And today, Gordon and John made that statement."
The group clinked their glasses and murmured their agreements. In the pause that happens after such toasts, John Thompson himself spoke. "I guess now I gotta say a couple of words," he said softly, in the tone of a man who got used to being overlooked while spending 18 years in prison.
John said, "Michael's right that Laverne and I could use that money, for sure. But the fact that I'm standin' here is because of Michael and Gordon and the rest of the lawyers that helped them. They didn't just represent me like lawyers. They were professional, but more than that, they were personal. While I was on Death Row, I called them at home and got into their families and their lives, and they got into mine. Now since I been out, I've been to their homes and slept in their homes and they are family, and they let me be part of their families. They been great lawyers, but it's never been just professional. It's been personal, too.
"In a way, Michael and Gordon and their families have helped me see a way of family that I never saw when I was growing up, and without that, I wouldn't be living the life I'm living. And that's what I think about at times like this. So thank you, Michael and Gordon, not just for saving my life but for helping me live the new life I got when I got out of prison."
I know a lot of people who have grown up with a lot more advantages than John Thompson who couldn't have delivered a speech with that much perspective on a bet. I hope he wins his legal battle -- but John Thompson is a winner either way, and a win's a win.
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