Death-row survivor John Thompson is angry, but not bitter. Which is remarkable, given that the prosecutor in his original trial for murder in 1984 deliberately withheld evidence that proved he was innocent. "I'm angry," he says, "because that man was trying to murder me. He knew I did not commit that crime, had the evidence to prove it, but it made no difference. He was going to have me killed in the chair to further his own career." Of all the cases of death-row prisoners who have been exonerated in recent years, Thompson's is one of the most troubling. Jerry Deagan, the prosecutor in question, only confessed that he had concealed the blood evidence that would have absolved Thompson when he found he was dying of liver cancer, 11 years after Thompson's conviction. In an attempt to clear his conscience, Deagan told his colleague, Mike Riehlmann, what he had done.
But even when Deagan died, it was almost five years before Riehlmann came clean and earned a brief suspension from Louisiana's Supreme Court for his "inaction". After 14 years on death row and seven execution dates, Thompson was given a retrial in 2004. The jury took just a few minutes to acquit him, and later he walked out of Louisiana's Angola State prison with just $10 in his pocket for his trouble. Now he campaigns against the death penalty. And not just for those who might be innocent. "There is nothing about justice in death penalty cases in the US," he told me at the annual conference of Lifelines (www.lifelines-uk.org), the organisation that arranges pen-friends for those on death row, where he and I were guest speakers. "It's all about votes and careers."
He opened his briefcase and took out a large photograph of a burly-looking man wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. The man, Jim Williams, was the senior prosecutor who oversaw Thompson's original trial. In the picture, Williams wears a look of pride and stands behind a large desk, upon which stands a small model of an electric chair. Attached to the chair are the photographs of five black men. Thompson's picture, in the centre, is the largest. "He was especially proud to send me to the chair," says Thompson, "and it was all based on lies."
Here's a link to John Thomspon's site and new work, helping to rehabilitate prisoners.