My life after death row, by man cleared of murder

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.”

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker