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Melissa Berkelhammer

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Killing Time at the Lambs Club

Posted: 10/ 4/10 03:23 PM ET

One of the basic tenets of writing is "to show, not tell." One particular English teacher pounded this dictum into my head to the point of insanity (at the time). Anytime she caught me (or any of my classmates) writing in general terms, she would scribble, in her signature green pen, "B.S." Get your mind out of the gutter, readers: those letters stood for "be specific," as in, back up your assertions (or disprove someone else's) with specific examples. But of course the real kicker was that generalizations are, indeed, a form of "B.S." - in the most traditional sense of the term. It took a few dozen of those green scribbles for us eighth graders to finally "get it," but once we did, we honed that skill which took us through college, graduate school, and beyond.

I tell this story not to sing the praises of college prep, but because i have come to realize - now more fully than ever - that these lessons should be applied well beyond the classroom. Last Thursday, I attended a cocktail party and panel discussion for John Hollway's all too appropriately titled Killing Time, a chronicle of John Thompson's wrongful conviction and his subsequent 18 years on Death Row.

For those unfamiliar with the case of Thompson v. Connick, the New Orleans DA's office has appealed a federal jury verdict of $14 million to Thompson, a New Orleans native who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1985. In 1999, 30 days before his execution, his pro bono attorneys discovered blood evidence that conclusively proved his innocence. The prosecutors never disclosed this evidence, and yet it still took until 2003 for Thompson to get a new trial. Once he did, however, he was acquitted after a mere 35 minutes of jury deliberation. If one can even call that "deliberation." As Hollway quipped, 35 minutes is just about enough time for the jury to convene and have their danish and coffee. It was as clear as daylight that Thompson, a man who lost half his life to judicial sloppiness and corruption, was a victim - and nearly a casualty - of our criminal justice system.

In 2005, a recently freed Thompson sued the DA's office under a theory of municipal liability under section 1983 of the federal code. It's a narrow window, but basically what it means is this: the law protects individual prosecutors, so one cannot sue individuals. However, one does have a case if he or she can show that the policy of the office, or that the DA himself, was deliberately indifferent to implementing policies that made sure that the innocent were not convicted. And in this case, the evidence was overwhelming that the majority of Connick's prosecutors were inexperienced and felt pressure to rack up as many convictions as possible. If that meant suppressing exculpatory evidence, so be it. Under this narrow window of "deliberate indifference," the 5th circuit awarded Thompson the $14 million. But the District Attorney's office has now appealed the verdict in the hopes of closing that narrow but all too consequential window. At the 5th Circuit's behest, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Thompson v. Connick on October 6, and a final verdict is expected by the spring of 2011.

So on Thursday evening, the ever lovely Brooke Geahan assembled an intimate group (which included the likes of Salman Rushdie and Moby) at the ever buzz-worthy Lambs Club to meet John Thompson and to join Mark Green, Lewis Lapham, Barry Scheck, and the aforementioned John Hollway for a discussion on wrongful conviction, corruption, and our nation's complicated attitude toward the death penalty. The evening, according to Geahan, was meant to be a "showcase of why this is a landmark court case." The event was in partnership was the non-profit Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization (founded by Scheck in 1992 as a clinic at Cardozo Law School) whose mission is to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing. Thus far, 258 people seriously convicted of serious crimes in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing.

During the panel portion of the evening, Scheck opined that our predilection toward capital punishment was an extension of the still prevalent "eye-for-an-eye" mentality, while Lapham suggested that the American romanticization of the murderer as an outlaw and hero - from Clint Eastwood to GoodFellas to Tony Soprano to Boardwalk Empire - merely reinforces the notion of capital punishment as something heroic.

This last thought piqued my interest, precisely because those at the helm of American, or Hollywood, culture, by and large identify themselves as "left." I brought this up with Lapham post panel discussion, and he conceded that putting Scorsese and Eastwood in the same sentence was a bold move. Yet despite the differing leanings of these two filmmakers, the audience often has the same reaction to "outlaw as hero," a reaction that, according to Lapham, has evolved little since the days when the James Gang was deemed the "Knights of Camelot." That same worship extends to the white collar sector, as evidenced by a generation of Gordon Gekko wannabes who can recite monologues from Wall Street verbatim. The last time I checked, Oliver Stone was not exactly a conservative.

The most emotionally charged part of the evening, however, was Thompson's own speech at the podium. He will be forever grateful to his two Philadelphia lawyers - Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney - who have worked on the case pro-bono since 1988 and literally saved his life. There are many other compelling and heart-wrenching details to be told: how 18 years later, a "free" Thompson was released from jail with the same clothes on his back; how he was sent out into the world with no money or any kind of identification; how his family visited him at most four times a year during his incarceration. It was gruesome details like this - not to mention the sloppy practices and corruption of the District Attorney's office - that immediately drew Hollway to the story. As he told me before the official panel began, "telling John's story as an individual makes him more compelling as a statistic." Numbers in and of themselves mean little to most people. Which brings me back to the "show, don't tell" maxim. Perhaps if we applied this principle to political issues more often, there would be fewer fruitless shouting matches and more thoughtful and productive discussions about the issues that are dividing our country. But enough commentary from me, before I slip into too many generalizations myself. To learn the whole story, read this eye-opener of a book.