Juan Smith, whose murder conviction was thrown out in January by the US Supreme Court, has filed a lawsuit against multiple district attorneys and prosecutors in the Orleans District Attorney’s Office in New Orleans for incubating a culture of misconduct.
Smith, whose conviction for a quintuple murder was used by the Orleans DA’s office to secure a death sentence against him in a different murder case, had his death sentence vacated in January following an 8-1 ruling from Supreme Court Justices that the state should have turned over preliminary statements made by the sole eyewitness in the case, which later conflicted with his court testimony.
The SCOTUS hearing in Smith v. Cain was widely publicized in part because the prosecutor charged with defending her office’s conduct endured scathing remarks from a number of justices. The New York Times opened their news article with the memorable comment:
Donna R. Andrieu, an assistant district attorney in New Orleans, had the unenviable task at the Supreme Court on Tuesday of defending her office’s conduct in withholding evidence from a criminal defendant. She made the least of it. …Justice Kagan said she could not understand why the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office persisted in defending its conduct. “Did your office ever consider just confessing error in this case?” she asked.
Following the vacation of his conviction in that case, Smith received a reprieve from a New Orleans District Court Judge in a different murder case in which the prior conviction accounted for 85% of the evidence presented in the penalty phase that ended in his death sentence.
Now, Smith is asking to reopen the case that the Orleans’ District Attorney’s office has engaged in a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct typified by the failure to disclose evidence that defendant’s are entitled to under the Constitution. When addressing this question in the 2010 case of John Thompson, also a former death row inmate whose conviction was reversed on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct, the United States Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision that the office couldn’t be held responsible for the work of a rogue prosecutor.
But many commentators, and now Smith, argue that the multiple findings of prosecutorial misconduct which have come out of District Attorney Cannizzaro’s Office (and the office of his predecessor, Harry Connick Sr.) point to a failure of the leadership.
Along with previous DA Harry Connick, Sr. and current DA Leon Cannizzaro, the lawsuit names Roger Jordan, who was the first prosecutor to be chastised by the Louisiana Supreme Court for committing Brady-related misconduct in the Shareef Cousin case (also detailed on the New Orleans page.) In that instance, Jordan received a 3 month suspended sentence on the condition that he would not engage in further misconduct.