Justice According To Thomas: Dissent in Case Overturning Murder Conviction Highlights The Twisted Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas

The extreme views of Justice Clarence Thomas were put into sharp relief yesterday when he stood alone in an 8-1 decision to overturn an outrageous conviction from New Orleans. In the face of shocking misconduct by prosecutors under Harry Connick Sr., even the most conservative members lined up to denounce the case . . . all but one.

The conviction of Juan Smith was a travesty by any measure outside of a Tehran Sharia court. Smith was convicted of five counts of murder based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, Larry Boatner. However, during post-conviction proceedings, Smith’s lawyers discovered that Boatner had told police on the night of the killings that he “could not ID anyone because (he) couldn’t see faces.” Prosecutors concealed this and other evidence from Smith and his legal team. Chief Justice John Roberts (hardly someone known to be liberal on constitutional criminal law) wrote the majority opinion.

While Boatner testified at trial that he had been “face to face with Smith during the initial moments of the robbery,” he and other witnesses were repeatedly given pictures of Smith by the prosecutors and failed to identify him.

I knew Connick in my time in Louisiana and we have appeared together on problems. He is an engaging person and we discussed his pride in his son’s success, Harry Connick, Jr. However, his record in New Orleans is highly controversial and he was often accused of violating the basic rights of accused individuals — a culture within his office. In this, and other cases, his staff was accused of violating the requirements of disclosure established in 1963 in Brady v. Maryland, which requires a state turn over evidence that would be favorable to the defendant and “material” to his guilt or punishment.

The majority took only four pages to overturn the case — though I will note that Roberts guaranteed that the case did not include language detailing the violations of the prosecutors and further expanding on the themes and use of Brady. Chief Justices will sometimes use their right to take a majority opinion to minimize the impact of a case. Roberts clearly did not want to expand on Brady and quickly dispensed with the case. His opinion fails to note the recidivist record of this office and concludes:

Because we hold that Boatner’s undisclosed statements
alone suffice to undermine confidence in Smith’s conviction, we have no need to consider his arguments that the other undisclosed evidence also requires reversal under Brady.

Given the abusive record, the Roberts decision reads like a judicial haiku — particularly when compared to cases involving free exercise or federalism or the second amendment where the Court offers long factual and legal explorations of the case.

Thomas,however, was neither brief nor measured. He wrote a 19 page dissent insisting that Boatner was a fine witness and there was no reason to reverse. Ignoring the record showing repeated denials by Boatner that he could identify the man, Thomas engaged in what can only be described as judicial artistic license in claiming “[m]uch of the record evidence confirms that, from the night of the murders through trial, Boatner consistently described — with one understandable exception — the first perpetrator through the door, that Boatner’s description matched Smith.” Thomas’ opinion seems not only detached from controlling precedent but from reality.

While never revealed to the defense before trial, notes from the detective contain a statement that Boatner told him that he “could not … supply a description of the perpetrators other then [sic] they were black males.” Five days after the crime, Boatner again said he “could not ID anyone because [he] couldn’t see faces” and “would not know them if [he] saw them.”

The record also shows police repeatedly showing witnesses Smith’s picture in 14 separate photo arrays to get someone to ID Smith. They were unsuccessful until Boatner finally changed his account.

What is most striking is that this is the same office that produced the outrage in the 1995 case, Kyles v. Whitley, where Harry Connick Sr.’s office concealed evidence. Yet, there is still no discussion of any punishment for the prosecutors responsible for this latest abuse.

For his part, Thomas would create a standard that would be virtually impossible for any defendant to satisfy. What Thomas calls a “’reasonable probability’ that the jury would have been persuaded by the undisclosed evidence” was clearly not met to his satisfaction in a case where the only witness said that he could not identify Smith. Here Boatner was offered for his ability to identify the defendant and previously said that he could not identify the defendant. Yet, Thomas views that as falling below any reasonable probability that it would have persuaded the jury. It is unclear what it would take for Thomas sort of a Perry Mason moment of the witness screaming, “I did it, I did it and I glad I did it.”

We continue to struggle with the problem of prosecutors withholding evidence in criminal cases. While Roberts made sure that this case would not expand on existing precedent in support of such defendants, the case goes into the win column of constitutional criminal law.

Here is the opinion: 10-8145

55 thoughts on “Justice According To Thomas: Dissent in Case Overturning Murder Conviction Highlights The Twisted Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas”

  1. At this time it seems like Movable Type is the top blogging platform available
    right now. (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on
    your blog?

  2. To quote Mark Twain:

    “For these (corrupt policemen and lawmen, politicians)…are the dust licking pimps and slaves of the scum here as well as elsewhere in America…”

    Twain was referring to the mistreatment of Chinese people in California in the 19th century, but his admonishment and keen understanding of dirty politics and lawmen applies here as well.

  3. The cops collaborate with judges and prosecutors in covering up evidence, planting evidence, denying people’s rights etc. Some are motivated at a frustration with the inefficacy of our justice system, but I am sure many are motivated by pure spite or personal vendettas/aggrandizement.

  4. Justice Thomas is at bottom a classic authoritarian. That means that he will tend to give more credence to the positions of institutions than to those of individuals, even, as here, in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. The history of the New Orleans District Attorney’s office is one of such profound corruption that it ought to be shut down completely and reorganized from the bottom up. A few indictments for obstruction of justice might be helpful as well.

  5. The flag was that of a confederate flag in full, on the wall, not on his desk, behind his desk, in view of the wall from the open door, and it was said by him to illustrate that he was unreconstructed to the 14th Amendment. He was an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Missouri and defending cases involving deprivations of rights by the State of Missouri. That crap about the Georgia state flag is also true because he had that one on his desk.

  6. About That Flag on the Judge’s Desk
    By Adam Clymer

    Published: July 19, 1991

    The article:

    Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said today that Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court nominee, had told him he had not displayed a Confederate flag in his office in Jefferson City, Mo., but had instead kept the flag of Georgia, his home state, on his desk.

    The right two-thirds of the Georgia flag is identical to the Confederate battle flag. That could explain why two Missouri friends of the nominee, Richard Wieler and Poldine Otto, have told reporters that he kept a Confederate flag on his desk as a quirky display of his individuality.

    But since the story was reported in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The New York Times and other newspapers, Judge Thomas has been criticized for displaying the emblem of rebellion. Mr. Hatch, who raised the flag question with the nominee last Thursday, said today that Judge Thomas’s commitment to individual liberty would have made it impossible for him to display the Confederate flag.

    Mr. Wieler and Ms. Otto said in interviews on Wednesday that they were now unsure which flag it was. They had called it a Confederate flag in interviews on July 2, the day after President Bush announced that Judge Thomas, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, was his choice for the Court. View From Next Desk
    Ads by Google

    Judge Thomas is making no public statements, including answers to press questions, before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    A detailed explanation of the flag issue was offered by Joel Wilson, now a Portland, Ore., lawyer who was an assistant state attorney general and sat at the next desk when the nominee was an assistant attorney general of Missouri in 1975 and 1976.

    In a letter sent to The New York Times and in subsequent interviews, Mr. Wilson said he had at first mistaken the flag for the Confederate standard. He said that if the flag on the desk fooled him, a native of Tennessee, it might easily have fooled others.

    In his letter, Mr. Wilson said, “I asked Clarence Thomas why he, of all people, would have this flag on his desk in light of all the things it could be said to stand for.”

    He said his colleague pointed out the seal of Georgia, on the left side of the flag, and said, “This flag flies from every courthouse, school and public building in my home state” and added, “Every black child in Georgia has to grow up under this flag. Think about that.”

    Mr. Wilson concluded: “Judge Clarence Thomas has not forgotten his heritage. He survived it, and he remembers it very well.” (end of article)

  7. Thanks for the GMO/Monsanto info. An interesting book:

    Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation
    by William F. Engdahl

  8. 5thGradeChief: No, I never heard about this flag. Nothing would surprise me about this man.

    I have been hearing from all my farming friends about GMO alfalfa and how it is going to contaminate all alfalfa, even wild species of alfalfa, in America. It is the first perennial GMO plant approval.

    Is the government going to let Monsanto win every single cross contamination alfalfa case? This will put most farmers out of business. As well as private landowners who simply grow cover crops in rotation.

  9. shano: You say that Justice Thomas is from Monsanto. Is that correct? Monsanto from his days in Missouri? You heard of course about his flag on the wall behind his desk when he was an assistant attorney General for the State of MO? You heard what he said about the meaning of that flag? That he was : _____. Others on the blog please chimne in. Inquiring minds want to know.

  10. Thomas, our judge from Monsanto- one of the most evil Multinational corporations on the planet.

    Another judge upheld GMO alfalfa today. Mourning for all livestock and humans in America today. We will see more infertility and organ damage in food animals and eventually humans because of this ruling..

  11. Souter and Thomas. G.H.W.B.’s presidency was the best of times and the worst of times…unlike his son, whose presidency was exclusively the latter.

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