Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Innocent on Death Row

by John Hollway

October 5, 2010

On April 19, 1999, Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney traveled from Philadelphia to Louisiana's death row at the State Penitentiary at Angola to meet with their client, John Thompson. Banks and Cooney had represented Thompson since 1988, and his appeal for capital murder was rapidly reaching an inexorable conclusion. Despite the lawyers' best efforts, they had failed. The U.S. Supreme Court had rejected their final petition. Thompson's eighth—and final—death warrant had been signed by the judge. John Thompson was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on May 20, 1999.

Banks and Cooney had a brief and emotionally wrenching meeting with Thompson, made worse by the fact that Thompson was more concerned about them than he was about himself. Exhausted and demoralized, they began the long drive back to New Orleans, where they would have to tell Thompson's mother that they had been unable to save her son's life. During the drive, Cooney checked his voice mail. What he found was a message from a private investigator with surprising new evidence in the case—the first pull on a thread that would take John Thompson off death row, then out of prison entirely, and this week to the United States Supreme Court.