Have you ever met an astronaut? Hardly any of us have been in space, a few more have summited Everest, a few more yet have won Olympic gold medals. Achieving any of these things is extraordinary but it does not make someone extraordinary. Only the extraordinary experiences of a very few are matched by equally extraordinary characters. The far too young death of John Thompson this week has lost us one of those exceptional people.
John Thompson, or JT to everyone that met him, spent 14 years on Death Row in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary for a murder he did not commit. Prosecutorial misconduct of the gravest and most flagrant nature put him there. He watched six execution dates come and go before the dogged persistence of his lawyers finally unearthed the wrongdoing that eventually resulted in his release.
A jury awarded him 14 million dollars for the wrong that was done him. That decision was upheld by every court save for the Unites States Supreme Court which allowed the appeal against the award resulting in him receiving nothing for spending a decade and a half festering in a cell waiting to be extinguished by a needle, murdered by the state.
This is a summary of the Supreme Court case: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connick_v._Thompson
This is his written account of his experience in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/opinion/10thompson.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
This is an interview with him so you can see and hear him for yourself: http://www.thestory.org/stories/2013-06/john-thompson
Many others take a different view but for me one Death Row exoneration is all the evidence I need that the Death Penalty deserves no place in any civilised society. It is not evidence that the system works it is evidence that innocent people end up executed.
JT was eventually released in 2003 after 18 years of imprisonment. I met him just one year later when I spent the Summer of 2004 interning with Nicholas Trenticosta, a dauntless and dogged defender of Death Row prisoners. JT was working at the Center for Equal Justice where I was volunteering fresh out of law school. He was still undergoing a decompression process that I strongly suspect lasted for the rest of his life. Thanks to the steadfast support of his wife Laverne, the structure of working in the law office and the assistance of his friends and family JT was able not merely to survive his return to freedom but to thrive.
Many that are exonerated are not so fortunate. The injustice that they have suffered overwhelms them and the longed for freedom of their imagination instead manifests itself in intoxicated oblivion, a swift return to prison or even suicide. That none of those paths unfolded in front of JT is in small part attributable to his good fortune at having the support that was around him but in very great measure due to his heroic strength of character.
When many if not most men would have surrendered to hatred and bile JT realised that the only course that would permit him peace of mind and allow him to enjoy what he had and not what he was so grotesquely deprived of would be to turn outwards to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. Accordingly JT founded a charity, Resurrection After Exoneration, that provided practical, financial, legal and medical help for those like him who had been chewed up and spat out by the American criminal justice system.
I will treasure my memories of the time I spent with JT, eating pig's tail and rice cooked by his wife, second lining in the projects, accompanying him and his family to a gospel service in his parish church. But what I will treasure more than anything is the lesson that the true measure of a man is not the achievement of high office or accolades but how his character withstands life's challenges. Few were tested more grievously and unjustly than John Thompson and few triumphed more magnificently.