May 9, 2003

Statement of Rachel King, States Strategies Coordinator, ACLU Capital Punishment Project and Heather Hall, Public Education Director, ACLU of Louisiana

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NEW ORLEANS- The release today of John Thompson, who spent over 16 years on Louisiana's death row for a crime he did not commit, should be a wake-up call for elected officials and state leaders all across this country.

Thompson, who narrowly avoided execution by just a few weeks, becomes the 108th person in the nation to be released from death row with proof of his innocence.

Whether you support or oppose the death penalty, this is unacceptable. It is time to recognize the magnitude of the problems plaguing our nation's death penalty system and implement a nationwide, temporary freeze on executions until these problems are adequately addressed.

Forty-year-old Thompson has always maintained his innocence but it has taken nearly two decades for him to win his freedom. 

In 1984, when he was 22, Thompson was sent to death row for the robbery and murder of 34-year-old hotel executive Ray Liuzza, who was gunned down just around the corner from his apartment building. Thompson's death sentence was reversed in 2001 after his attorney discovered that prosecutors had withheld critical evidence which proved that Thompson could not have been the perpetrator because the blood found on Liuzza did not match Thompson's. Louisiana's state appeals court subsequently ruled that the prosecutor's intentional withholding of evidence entitled Thompson to a new trial. 

In preparation for the new trial, Thompson's lawyers found eyewitness Shari Hartman Kelly, who left Louisiana shortly after the crime in fear for her life. Kelly testified that the man she saw was very muscular with short hair, but at that time Thompson had a tall afro-styled haircut and a slender build. The most compelling witness was Thompson himself, who took the stand for the first time in his own defense and declared his innocence. It took jurors less than an hour to acquit him of all charges. 

This is the second time in nearly as many weeks where a death penalty case has fallen apart. The state appeals court ordered a new hearing in the case of juvenile offender Ryan Matthews, after DNA test results proved that Matthews was wrongfully convicted. 

Louisiana is not alone in making mistakes. There have been 107 people who have been exonerated and released from death rows in 25 states. Five of those 107 came from Louisiana.

The ACLU calls for a temporary freeze on executions pending a thorough study of the Louisiana death penalty and is working with members of the Louisiana legislature to pass a resolution in support of a study bill.

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