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Six Months Out 

John Thompson talks about his sons, the time he wrongly spent on death row and his half-year of freedom.

A small piece of microfiche had pulled John Thompson to freedom, after 18 years spent on Louisiana's death row.

Now an everyday sight -- a pregnant woman waiting for a streetcar -- was pulling him across busy St. Charles Avenue and over the streetcar tracks. "It was the most beautiful thing," Thompson says. "She was in her own little world, eyes closed, rubbing her stomach." Seeing her reminded him of the times, two decades ago, before his own sons were born. "You forget about the beauty of small things," he says. "You've been gone from them for so long."

This Saturday marks the six-month anniversary of Thompson's freedom. But in the spring of 1999, all of his appeals had been exhausted and his eighth -- and final -- execution date was only a month away. Then an investigator, hired as a last-ditch effort by his pro bono legal team, discovered a piece of microfiche containing a crucial 1985 lab report. In November 2002, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit ruled that Thompson deserved a new murder trial, citing the prosecution's "intentional hiding" of evidence.

On May 8 of this year, Thompson was acquitted of the murder charge that he'd been convicted of exactly 18 years before. He became the 108th person to be exonerated from this nation's death rows since 1973.

Now, as he heads from his office to a nearby coffeeshop, Thompson chuckles at the absurdity of a co-worker's order -- a double-tall, non-fat latte -- then heads out into the damp day and lights up a cigarette while he walks. He's in the midst of an impassioned, detailed explanation of his case when he stops short next to a well-groomed tabby with long white whiskers.

"Look at how pretty that cat's face is," he says, watching for a few seconds as the latest marvel extends its front paws and stretches.

"Turn right," says Thompson, pointing toward the corner of a vast concrete parking lot. For some of the most stable years of his life, until about age 14, this was his childhood block -- Euterpe between Baronne and Carondelet streets. Right here, he points, is where his best friend James Wise lived with his grandmother. Her house has now been bulldozed.

Next door was Thompson's grandmother, who raised him for much of his youth. Her house is also gone. She passed away in 1995 and, a year later, was followed by her son, Thompson's father. As a death-row inmate, Thompson couldn't attend either funeral.

Thompson looks out at the blank expanse of concrete and recalls the day in 1985 when he stood in the courtroom and received his death sentence. He was then escorted back to the tier at Orleans Parish Prison that houses people sentenced to 99 years or more. State inmates like Thompson are typically kept at OPP for their first few years, until their direct-appeals process is finished.

He was only 22, a good-looking young man who now had to worry that his good looks would get him raped, something that was happening to many of the young men around him, he says.

The old-timers on the tier warned Thompson not to waste his time worrying about lost girlfriends, because no one with a sentence like his could expect someone to stick by him. That advice soon turned out to be true. So at night, as he laid back on his bunk, his mind raced about one thing, he says. "I'd think, 'What is going to happen to my sons?'" At the time, they were young boys -- Dedric was 6 and John Jr. had just turned 4.

Kids were only permitted to visit OPP once a year, at Christmas, and since Thompson was arrested on Jan. 17, 1985, he didn't see his sons for nearly a year. When he finally saw them, on Christmas 1985 and Christmas 1986, it was for 10 minutes, through a window about the size of a cereal box, covered by wire-mesh screen that had been painted over a number of times, making the mesh smaller and more difficult to see through.

On Sept. 1, 1987, Thompson arrived at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and was assigned a cell on death row that still held a man's clothes and belongings. The previous inmate, Sterling Rault, had been executed several days before, a fact that "spooked the hell out of me," Thompson says.

That year, Louisiana had executed eight men -- one-third of the people executed in the entire nation. Every month or so, says Thompson, it seemed like someone he had met or befriended was headed to Camp D and its electric chair.

Death seemed very close. "My mind would light with images of me being strapped to the chair, the sound of electricity ringing in my head," Thompson wrote for a Web site (http://liberty504.tripod.com). The site was arranged for him with the help of Shareef Cousin, who walked off death row in 1999 after his conviction was thrown out by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Thompson's kids could visit him at Angola. But the trip from New Orleans was so long and expensive that he only saw his sons a few times each year. Once again it was through a screen -- although a much bigger screen than OPP's. He wasn't able to hug his sons for 10 years, until 1995, when they were teenagers and Angola began allowing contact visits, a policy that continued until 1999, when there was an escape from death row.

When Thompson laid in his bed at night, his thoughts still were on his sons. He knew that John Jr. had a strong male role model in maternal grandfather Nathaniel Williams, Sr., who worked at Charity Hospital and had always provided for his family. Then there was his older son, Dedric -- Thompson was worried about him.

That's partly because the old neighborhood is not a place where young men grow old gracefully, Thompson says, looking around at the few houses that remain on Euterpe Street. He passes the former store that sold gingerbread cookies, the cab company's parking lot where he first learned to break into cars, the now-razed corner houses where he was known as a club-hopper, a hustler and a small-time drug dealer, slinging and smoking weed and freebasing cocaine.

"Take a left here," Thompson says, directing the car to a narrow street where his mother grew up. It's also where a customer of Thompson's used a ring and a .357-caliber Magnum to pay for a clickem, a marijuana joint laced with PCP. The ring had belonged to hotel executive Raymond Liuzza Jr., and the gun was the murder weapon that had fatally wounded Liuzza with five bullets in this very neighborhood on Dec 6, 1984.

Thompson says that when he was growing up, most of the older men from around here were either dead or -- like his father -- in jail most of the time. Now, most of his own friends are dead. "If they're not, they're worn down, from drugs and alcohol," he says.

It's a little after 6 p.m., a perfect time to stop at the Church's Chicken on Claiborne Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Inside, Thompson orders a three-piece chicken with a side of fries, and hugs an older man who's already standing in line -- it's Nathaniel Williams Sr., John Jr.'s maternal grandfather, the very person Thompson had just been talking about. The older man says that he had kept everything that had been written on Thompson's case. Over the years, those articles grew into a big pile of clippings.

Thompson walks out of Church's and gestures toward Williams, who is driving away. "That's a man to me," says Thompson. He believes that Williams deserves a lot of the credit for the success of John Jr., who graduated from high school and is now, at age 22, studying to be a graphic artist.

Earlier that day, while sitting at his desk, Thompson had opened a manila envelope and inserted a money order and some snapshots of the family and of his new white pit bull, Snow. He then addressed it to his older son, who's serving time in OPP for a probation violation on a cocaine-possession charge.

Several years earlier, Dedric had dropped out of school and then got caught up. "I was Dedric's only hope," says Thompson regretfully. When he thinks about the things he missed out on while he sat on death row, this is at the top of his list.

This weekend morning, more than 20 volunteers are pounding nails, sawing wood and raising roof trusses on a Habitat for Humanity house. On the far side of the house stands a couple, working side by side. The man is about a head taller than the woman, who's petite with dark brown eyes.

Like all of the people working on the house, they wear name tags made from pieces of gray duct tape scrawled with pen. His reads "JT"; hers reads "Laverne." When the house is finished next month, it will be theirs.

At the end of each day, the volunteers -- visiting conventioneers from the American College of Real Estate Lawyers -- are given pencils to write their good wishes onto their work. "From my family to yours," reads one beam. "With all good luck. We are privileged to help," reads another.

A few months ago, Thompson says, a network television interviewer talked to him but seemed disappointed. "She wanted to know how hard it is when a person gets out," he says. "And I couldn't give her that."

"A lot of guys who have been exonerated are certainly not doing well," says Nick Trenticosta, an attorney for the local Center for Equal Justice who began working on Thompson's case in 1988. "John is 41 and he spent 18 years -- almost half his life -- on death row. But he's doing well. He's very healthy, mentally. And he's also got incredible support that a lot of guys who are exonerated don't have."

This new house, for instance. Then there's his wife, his steady job, and his church.

Laverne and John Thompson first met when they attended what was then McDonogh 36 Elementary School, at Freret and Josephine streets. After John was released in May, Laverne wrote down her phone number and handed it to his mother at church. They exchanged vows on June 25 -- the first marriage for them both. Thompson says that Laverne, who's endured some tough times of her own, helps keep him on solid footing.

Thompson feels like he has another key advantage -- he never had to look for work. "I had this job right off the bat," he says. He arrived home on a Friday and by that Monday was working as a paralegal at the Center for Equal Justice, which currently represents about 15 of Thompson's former colleagues on Louisiana's death row. Attorney Paula Montoye, Thompson's supervisor, is writing her dissertation on his case. "He's a walking miracle," she says.

But even a miracle needs some inspiration. Tonight, after stopping at Church's Chicken, Thompson will meet Laverne outside of her workplace, the Uptown location of the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church. As hundreds of men walk by, carrying their Bibles, the Thompsons sit in the car and share three pieces of chicken and some fries. Then they head inside.

Joining this church, Thompson says, was one of the wisest moves he's made. "Besides marrying my wife," he says, pulling her close and kissing her on the forehead.

It's "Men of Vision" night, and so Laverne and the handful of other women are asked to worship from the balcony. Downstairs, Thompson stands a few rows from the front, next to his old next-door neighbor James Wise, who used to run with Thompson on less holy pursuits but is now a minister at a local church.

Behind the pulpit, way up in the choir stand, are several men in light-green Orleans Parish Prison uniforms -- they're the men from Voices of Thunder, OPP's gospel group. During one song's introduction, the inmates compare the iron bars that imprison them with the difficulties that everyone faces.

Thompson felt that message hit home. "I was right there with them," he says afterward. He stands outside the church, putting up his hood to guard against the cold, wet wind. "I am still struggling," he says. "I'm still struggling every day."

When Thompson first arrived at death row, he remembers being hot-headed, thinking that, no matter what he did, the state of Louisiana was going to kill him anyway. Then, a few years later, death-row prisoners were put into the same building as the group of solitary-confinement inmates, who are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day. In that group was Angola 3 inmate Robert King Wilkerson -- known as King.

Wilkerson advised the young hothead to cool it. "King said, 'No -- you ain't going to get nowhere with that,'" says Thompson. "He said, 'You use that ink pen, use that pencil.'"

Wilkerson was released in 2001. For his part, Thompson took Wilkerson's advice. He wrote letters, attempting to get politically powerful people involved in his case. He sent packages about his case to legislators and to the ministers of all the big churches -- no response.

So Thompson decided to seek lawyers from out of town. In 1988, he hooked up with Trenticosta at the Loyola Death Penalty Resource Center, the predecessor to the Equal Justice Center. Trenticosta connected Thompson with Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney Jr., two attorneys from Philadelphia. They worked on his case until he was acquitted this spring.

Now, Thompson's office at the Center for Equal Justice is stacked full of cardboard bankers' boxes containing legal files. Each box is labeled by thick black magic marker with the name of a Center client.

On the wall in the next room is an astonishing photograph. In it, former assistant district attorney Jim Williams stands behind a desk, displaying a miniature electric chair pasted with six little faces, each one representing a person that Williams helped to put on death row. One of those faces is Thompson's -- he points at his dated mugshot and then goes through the list of other faces pasted to the mini-chair. Today, not one of the men pictured remains on death row -- all of them have either been exonerated or given a life sentence.

The photograph is good visual support for Thompson's belief that the pursuit of the death penalty is less about guilt or innocence and more about politics. As someone who was accused and then convicted of killing a high-profile New Orleans citizen, he says, he felt this pressure first-hand.

Public support for the death penalty has been dwindling in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who say they favor the death penalty has dropped from 78 percent in June 1996 to 64 percent in July 2003. Analysts say that this drop has a lot to do with the growing number of exonerated death-row inmates, people like John Thompson.

Still, many inmates leave and find that, in their state -- like in Louisiana -- there's no reimbursement for wrongful convictions. And district attorneys in this state, as in many others, have immunity from lawsuits.

This week, John and Laverne Thompson will be at the Saenger Theatre, attending a performance of the hit play The Exonerated, which tells the story of six wrongly convicted death-row inmates. Thompson says that, first of all, he'll be watching for authenticity. The movies Dead Man Walking and Green Mile were good, he says, but he's never seen anything that truly captures the experience of being on death row.

But Thompson says he's as interested in the action off-stage, the reaction of the audience. "Because people have heard about your case and my case and everybody else's case -- but they haven't changed their mind about the death penalty," he says. It's something he can't figure out.

In New York, TV news cameras asked theater-goers whether the play had changed their opinion about the death penalty. If cameras appear outside the Saenger this week, Thompson says, he just plans to be standing back, listening.

SIDEBAR #1

HEDE: Frequently Asked Questions

"The bottom line is that The Exonerated is not a piece of fiction," says local defense attorney Billy Sothern. The play is especially relevant in Louisiana, he says, a state with a history of wrongful convictions and one that national Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Plotkin recently called "a hub of exoneration."

Sothern believes that this week's performances at the Saenger Theatre bring one main point to mind: "They should force us to consider whether the state of Louisiana should have the death penalty," he says.

Through his work at the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, Sothern defends people who receive the death penalty. On June 19, Sothern and a client's mother were flown to New York for a performance of The Exonerated at the Bleecker Street Theater.

Afterward, Sothern and Pauline Matthews took questions from the audience about the case of Ryan Matthews, a current death-row inmate who was 17 when he was arrested for the 1997 murder of a Bridge City grocer. Matthews is now awaiting an exoneration hearing ordered by the Louisiana Supreme Court after Sothern's investigation found that DNA evidence left at the scene matched someone else.

At the Bleecker Street Theater, audience members asked very basic questions. If Matthews is innocent, they asked, why is he still in prison? (The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, answered Sothern, that innocence alone is not grounds for a new trial.) Can Ryan sue for damages? (Not in Louisiana, where district attorneys generally have immunity.) What was Matthews' defense attorney like, asked one person? (Matthews, like almost all death-row inmates, was represented by court-appointed attorneys, who work under overwhelming caseloads and with insufficient resources to devote to a capital case.)

Center for Equal Justice attorney Nick Trenticosta has heard similar questions during his nearly 20 years defending death-row inmates, including John Thompson. He points out that, since 1973, there have been 111 death-row exonerations. Six have come from Louisiana.

"When a plane goes down, $100 million goes into investigating why it happened," says Trenticosta. "We've got 111 exonerations, but nobody's doing anything. That's what astounds me."

click to enlarge "My mind would light with images of me being - strapped to the chair, the sound of electricity - ringing in my head," John Thompson once wrote - about his 18 years on death row. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • "My mind would light with images of me being strapped to the chair, the sound of electricity ringing in my head," John Thompson once wrote about his 18 years on death row.
click to enlarge "Jill is about being as honest and real with you as - Sunny is." director Bob Balaban says of Jill - Clayburgh's performance as Sunny Jacobs in - The Exonerated.
  • "Jill is about being as honest and real with you as Sunny is." director Bob Balaban says of Jill Clayburgh's performance as Sunny Jacobs in The Exonerated.
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