John Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them on death row, for a crime that it seems very likely he did not commit. Prosecutors were aware that blood found at the crime scene was not Mr. Thompson’s, but they failed to turn this evidence over to the defense attorneys.
Does Mr. Thompson deserve compensation? A jury thought so, to the tune of $14 million. But five Supreme Court justices disagree, so Thompson gets nothing.
That’s because, according to the majority, it was only a single rogue prosecutor who misbehaved, so it would be wrong to punish the whole district attorney’s office. The dissenting minority argued that in fact there was a pattern of lax training in that office, so the jury award should stand.
But if an innocent man spends 18 years in prison, why should his compensation depend on the nature of the misconduct that sent him there — or even on whether there was any misconduct in the first place?
Look. We’ve pretty much all agreed that we want to have a justice system. Since all justice systems make mistakes, that means we’ve pretty much all agreed that we’re prepared to tolerate a certain number of mistakes. The question, though, is: Who should bear the costs of those mistakes? Should the costs fall entirely on an unlucky few like John Thompson who just happen to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or should they be spread more evenly among the populace that is perfectly happy to share in the benefits of the justice system?
I’ve made this argument before about the minimum wage. Let’s put aside all the legitimate controversy about whether the minimum wage is good for low-wage workers and accept that point for the sake of argument. If you believe it’s incumbent on society to transfer resources to those workers, you can do it with a minimum wage, which puts most of the burden on the relatively small segment of society that either owns or patronizes businesses with a lot of minimum wage workers, or you can do it with, say an Earned Income Tax Credit that spreads the burden more equally. If we have a collective obligation to help these workers, doesn’t fairness dictate that we all take a share in meeting that obligation?
Likewise, if we’ve collectively decided (rightly or wrongly) that every shopping mall should have a wheelchair ramp, what moral sense does it make to put the financial burden of those ramps on the owners and patrons of shopping malls, as opposed to financing them out of general revenues?
This seems to me to be exactly the same issue. If we’ve collectively decided we want the benefits of a justice system, doesn’t fairness dictate that we all take a share in meeting its costs? Those costs unavoidably include a certain number of false convictions. We can share those costs by contributing (presumably through the tax system) to a compensation fund. Prosecutorial misconduct has nothing to do with it.