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Can a Prosecutors’ Office be Liable under Section 1983 for Failure to Train?

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On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard argument in Connick v. Thompson. John Thompson was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1985 in New Orleans. He was exonerated in 2003 based on exculpatory evidence that prosecutors had concealed from his defense attorneys.

In 2007, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office was found liable to Thompson for injuries caused by a Brady violation, on the theory that the office had inadequately trained prosecutors. A federal jury awarded Thompson $14 million.

Much of the oral argument in front of the Supreme Court centered around whether Thompson had to demonstrate a pattern of violations in order to recover under section 1983. As Justice Ginsburg said, “[h]ere, it wasn’t one rogue prosecutor. There were four prosecutors who knew of this blood evidence and there were multiple opportunities for them to disclose it, but four of them apparently thought it was okay under Brady to keep this quiet.”

Justice Ginsburg further explained that “the problem with Brady — and this case illustrates it so well — is you don’t know. If the prosecutors don’t do what they’re supposed to do, there is a very high risk, as there was in this case, that it will never come to light. So, recognizing the legal obligation of the prosecutor and the temptation not to come out with Brady evidence because it doesn’t help the State’s case, shouldn’t there be extra vigilance when we are talking about a Brady claim?”

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