The twentieth of May 1999 is a date that will haunt John Thompson forever. It was the day he was going to die. Convicted in 1985 of first degree murder and an attempted carjacking three weeks later, the father-of-two from New Orleans was 24 when he arrived on death row in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. Over the course of his incarceration seven execution dates came and went, and as the final sweltering Deep South summer of the millennium approached he believed it would he his last.
“I had exhausted all of my appeals. My son was going to graduate from high school on 21 May. It was going to be the proudest day of his life and he was going to worry about his father being killed,” recalled Mr Thompson.
This week the grandfather of 10 is in Britain telling lawyers and academics the grim realities of life on death row in Louisiana, and of the struggle faced by increasing numbers of men like him as they attempt to rebuild their lives after being exonerated following breakthroughs in DNA evidence and the work of lawyers dedicated to reversing miscarriages of justice in the United States spanning decades.
He has told his audiences how just a handful of days before he was due to receive the lethal injection, an investigator re-examining the carjacking uncovered evidence of an unidentified man’s blood on the clothes of one of the robbery victims, who had fought back.
This evidence, which it later emerged had been deliberately withheld from the trial, was enough to cast doubt on his murder conviction too. The Court of Appeal ordered a retrial.
In 2003, after a hearing in which new witness evidence was put before the court, a jury took a few minutes to acquit him of the murder charge.
Speaking at the University of Manchester, where he was outlining the work of his charity Resurrection After Exoneration, Thompson described arriving at the former colonial plantation where he was locked up in a 6ft by 9ft cell for 23 hours a day waiting to die alongside 42 others. “It was like walking into hell. Radios and TVs were blasting, people yelling and the free man [warder] shouting ‘Keep it down’,” he recalled. In the months leading up to Thompson’s arrival in 1987, eight men had gone to the electric chair. It was the deadliest year in the history of Louisiana’s harsh penal system, which boasts the highest per capita prison population in the US.
“The reality hadn’t hit me that they wanted to kill me,” he said. “I was thinking that tomorrow they would wake up and realise they had convicted the wrong man.”
Mr Thompson had grown up in central New Orleans surrounded by crime. His mother was just 15 when he was born, his father 16. Despite the efforts of his grandmother who reared him, he embarked on a life selling marijuana and angel dust. By the age of 18 he had two children of his own and was augmenting his wages working in a jewellery store by buying and selling stolen goods.
When Ray Liuzza, the son of a wealthy white local hotel owner was murdered nearby there was a huge media and political outcry. The gun used to shoot the 34-year-old businessman and his ring were traced to Thompson who had unwittingly bought them from the real killer – a local man who was later shot dead.
Thompson insists he never stood a chance in an appallingly overstretched system where publicly appointed defenders can be juggling hundreds of cases at a time and experienced lawyers cost up to £100,000.
On death row Mr Thompson deployed the leadership qualities he was later to use to help exonerated men. He organised hunger strikes and fought to get full contact visits with partners – allowing inmates to have sex with their wives and girlfriends. And he made many close friendships with his fellow inmates - 12 of whom he saw executed during his 14 years on death row. “We have the same enemy. We have a common goal – they are going to pull the switch on us,” he said. “These are individuals just like any other. They hurt. They cry. They make mistakes.”
“On the day of an execution they did something that would fuck me up,” he recalled. “I remember them passing the word round ‘They gonna kill someone.’ Everybody would fast and pray – even the guys that weren’t religious. They weren’t praying for the person that was going to die but for their family and for the victim’s family. They had compassion,” he said.
“To watch a man roll by you, a man you got to know who you become friends with and you know he going to be put to death. You wake up the next morning and think, when is it going to be me? When am I going to make that walk? That’s why I fight the system so hard.”