This piece originally ran on The Lens
A Talk with John Thompson:
John Thompson knows the streets of New Orleans. He also knows the state’s prisons. He was one of several defendants railroaded to death row during Harry Connick’s 28-year tenure as Orleans Parish district attorney. Thompson ’s conviction was set aside after it was discovered that Connick’s assistants had unconstitutionally suppressed evidence favorable to the defense. Thompson initially was awarded $14 million for the wrongful conviction, only to have the money denied him by the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, Thompson is the founding director of Resurrection after Exoneration, which serves former prisoners trying to rebuild their lives. His office on St. Bernard Avenue includes a residence, computer training and a printing operation (posters, T-shirts and the like) that generates revenue for the group. Thompson plans a larger residential structure and is about to begin a national campaign that would, among other reforms, make prosecutors liable for their misconduct, just as incompetent defense attorneys and bad judges are. (DA’s are currently exempt.) With violence resurgent in post-Katrina New Orleans, The Lens joined Thompson for a free-wheeling conversation about the whys and wherefores of the crime epidemic. With his cooperation and approval, the exchanges below were rearranged, edited and condensed for clarity, brevity and readability. The conversation started – and ended – with Thompson offering his views on the root causes of the crime explosion:
Thompson: Our city is devastated by crime, but also by the criminal justice system. From the police all the way to the District Attorney’s Office, we’re being devastated. We don’t know who to trust. We’ve got a city with no sense of responsibility, no accountability.
We went from giving a junkie – a man that got strung out on heroin – two, three years in federal prison, to life in state prison. Then we went to creating career criminals – three strikes and you’re out. Harry Connick (who left office in 2003) was proud to say he hadn’t opened up a law book since 1973. From the moment he took office, he was telling us, “Y’all elected me. Forget my responsibilities to y’all as a citizen. I’m a politician, not a district attorney. I’ll hire other lawyers to do that. I want to win elections. That’s what I’m here about. I’m here about stiffening sentences.” And that’s what he did.
The criminal justice system targeted black neighborhoods, Thompson said.
The dream was putting away hardcore criminals. But the bottom line is we were convicting the wrong men. To keep you quiet, the only thing Connick needed was a conviction rate. And to keep the conviction rate high, he needed to fill up the parish jails.The man filled the jails up so fast (former Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles) Foti didn’t know what to do. Before Foti could finish one he was already asking for money for another.
Everybody knew what was going on. It was lock them up, throw away the key. And the community that was being targeted, the one with the biggest bull’s-eye on it, was the African American community, Central City, Orleans Parish.
The Lens: That’s where you grew up, right?
Thompson: I grew up on Euterpe between Baronne and Carondelet: dope, drugs, prostitution, everything – on either corner, Carondelet or Baronne. I was part of the last generation. I was like the oldest grandchild. People in their middle years had got out or were dead or in jail. Everybody else was children. Children and their grandparents, and the grandmothers were getting on in years. They couldn’t really keep up with their kids.
So by the time I’m in high school, I’m on that block without supervision, without them watching me hard. I got to see all these crazy things. It was kind of scary, that when I swung this corner I got introduced to drugs. When I swung that corner I got introduced to alcohol, when I swung another corner I got introduced to girls. That creates babies, that creates drug problems, that creates drug dealers. You can’t dodge that. Even today, they’ve got a barroom on this corner, they’ve got a store over there selling synthetic marijuana, they’ve got drugs and prostitution all the way round. You can’t dodge that.
The Lens: But those neighborhoods had been intact a generation earlier, poor but intact. What went wrong?
Thompson: There was a change in the way we communicated with parents. We went from you could whup my ass, you could call my mama, and she gonna whup my ass when I get home … We went from that to kids saying, “You touch me and I’ll call 911!”
So now you’ve got no respect. These mamas and papas are scared to death of their own children. Especially if they’re doing anything that might be deemed illegal. These kids are so smart they’re holding you hostage now. Sixteen years old and he’s coming in after midnight – you can’t lock the door and leave him on the street, so you let him in.
I never heard so many kids disrespecting their parents in my life. I didn’t dare raise my voice or curse around my mama, grandma, or anybody. Now, you can’t even tell who’s the child and who’s the parent. We lost that structure, and instead we got babies having babies. We need to address that.
The Lens: Where’s the church in all this? Was the church a part of your childhood?
Thompson: Get real! My grandfather was a preacher. Church was a heavy influence on my childhood. We got rid of so many things, we took church out of the schools, and created destruction. Why wouldn’t they want a child to pray in school? Or to open up with a peaceful mind? Why would you want to take that away? Why would you want to take away having respect and love for each other?
The Lens: But could the churches be doing more than they are – calling out parents who are letting their kids run wild?
Thompson: I don’t want to put my responsibility on the church. I know that’s my child out there on that corner slinging drugs. You know, I don’t give a damn what anybody say. The bottom line is:
“Whose child is that on that corner?”
“Girl, that’s Miss Mary’s child.”
“All right, Miss Mary, your child is on that corner selling drugs. What you gonna do about it?”
But you know what she says? She says, “I’m scared to death of my child. You think I’m gonna go down there and tell them to stop selling drugs? When he’s paying my rent?”
It’s so crazy, the scenarios that we put ourselves in, and who we deem responsible. We don’t want to take our licks. We want to put it on the priests, we want to put it on the schoolteachers, on everybody except us. I know one thing: If somebody calls me and says your son is out here on this damn corner, I’m going down there and see why my son is on this damn corner. Nobody has to ask me.
The Lens: Were you able to keep up a relationship with your sons from prison?
Thompson: A telephone dad. That’s all I could be. You know the hardest part about prison and trying to stay focused was, No. 1: I’m in prison; I’m in prison for two crimes I didn’t commit. Not one, two. And trying to convince my son that I’m not a gangster or thug. It was kind of crazy because I was a drug dealer. You know? And I’ve been shot, and you hear all these stories about your daddy. My boys only got to talk to their daddy once every three months, if I was lucky. Maybe you could see them once every four months. You know. For years and years.
When I went to jail, the older boy was 6, so by the time I’m ready to be executed, he was like 17. By then he knew a little too much about the streets. Where his mom lives is where I grew up. I had a rep. I had street cred. But my rep was totally different than what you usually think of. It wasn’t a violent rep, It wasn’t because I was shooting anybody. I never shot anybody in my life.
I was a drug dealer, but I was generous. I used to look out for everybody. I was very free-hearted with money, very kind-hearted, helped different people, helped different groups, kids. We used to do all kinds of stuff in our neighborhood, when we were selling drugs. Take all the kids to Pontchartrain Beach, crazy stuff like that.
The Lens: The money was pretty good?
Thompson: You could take an eight-ball of coke, which is three-and-a-half grams, or something like that – a $100 investment, and make $400 off it. So, if you’re not an addict and using what you sell, you could triple your money.
The Lens: In a couple days?
Some street drugs are probably less harmful than prescription pharmaceuticals, Thompson contends.
Thompson: A couple days? No, a couple of hours! Depending on where you were going and how you were doing and what you were working.
So, say now I’ve got an ounce of coke. Now there are 10 people that I can front. I can give each one of them an eight-ball to go sell and I get my cut.
That’s what’s going on a lot out there – fronting. And I think most of the killing comes from it.
The Lens: So what can be done? What’s the solution? Legalization?
Thompson: That’s scary, the epidemic of addiction that would come with that. There’s got to be a balance. Some of the lighter drugs, like marijuana, some of the things of that nature – sure, legalize them. But with the heavy drugs? Do you really want the government to be controlling that? Hell no. They’re already screwing us over with the drugs that they control now!
The Lens: You’re talking about pharmaceutical drugs?
Thompson: They’re not letting us know what the deep side effects are. So we’re on all kind of crazy drugs. Looks like you’re getting healthier, more natural dope off the streets than you’re getting from the pharmaceuticals. They’re just treating us like guinea pigs, with a few people getting rich.
The Lens: Do you see leadership at City Hall, under Mayor Landrieu?
Thompson: Mitch has a background similar to mine: entrepreneurial. He could create some good, good remedies such as putting some of these young kids to work.
But right now, man, it’s just insulting, to go down the streets, and look at, for instance, landscaping going on in the city, around Canal Street and around City Hall. Millions of dollars in city work, but you don’t see young black men out there; it’s more like Chinatown. That’s ridiculous.
That’s also the hardest part about re-entering, by the way, coming back from prison – whether you are coming back innocent or guilty. It’s coming back to the environment that led you to prison in the first place. There’s no work, and it’s worse than that. You get that negative vibe because you did time. Very few legislators are doing anything to create an atmosphere where we can get jobs.
The Lens: What about New Orleans Recreation Department? Is Landrieu right to prioritize rebuilding it?
Thompson: The parks were the most valid part of my life, coming up. NORD was a major piece of my childhood, but we also had summer camps. Tulane put on this summer camp and we got to spend the whole summer there. We learned how to swim in Tulane’s swimming pool. We learned how to play tennis at Tulane. I learned how to play football at Tulane, I learned how to play basketball at Tulane. Buses picked us up. I don’t know who was doing it. I don’t know if it was the Saints players doing it, the Tulane athletic department doing it – but I know they had buses coming from all neighborhoods going to Tulane. This was in the early ’70s.
The summer NORD program is a fine thing, but then it’s over with, when school’s back. And most of these little punks aren’t going back to school. I mean, get real. The dropout rate is sky-high.What we really need is to address that group of individuals – when you hit 16, that young adult age – because that’s when you get lonely. Especially if you had any kind of trouble with the law, even just a marijuana charge. And that’s what’s crazy about it. That’s what makes me mad because a police officer could pull up right now, and drop a bag of marijuana right there on the floor, and one of us is going to jail. That’s stupid.
The Lens: What’s the role of the schools?
Thompson: I think right now the schools are playing a serious role in two different ways. Tomorrow I go to Sacred Heart. I love going over there, my spiritual adviser is over there. So, every year I go over there, or every other year, and talk to the young ladies. It’s a clear example of what I’m talking about. Sacred Heart is a private school, right? Very private, very expensive and protected. You can go from Newman to De La Salle to Sacred Heart and you’re in a protected environment, a protected community. You’re not going to come out on the corner and see drugs. You’re not going to see a barroom. It’s an environment that breeds success, you feel me?
McMain was like that in my time. And so you had a bunch of inner-city kids sneaking into McMain and becoming successful. Because they were in that environment, they weren’t walking outside of school and seeing all this drug activity.
The Lens: What about the tough schools, like Carter G. Woodson, the one you went to?
Thompson: The tough schools are universities of crime. Take John Mac. When I first walk in there, you’ve got metal detectors and all that, like I’m going into a prison. So you’re creating this image in my mind that I’m already going into a screwed up environment. So now, what could we possibly learn inside a place like that?How’s that going to change my attitude, my mentality? My day hasn’t even started yet, and you’re screwing with me, searching me.
Strict in-home discipline goes a long way to solving social ills, Thompson said.
The Lens: But isn’t it a vicious circle. If you don’t do the metal detectors somebody’s going to bring in a gun, right?
Thompson: Not necessarily so. They weren’t doing it before. Every school didn’t have them. What matters is what moms and them do at home. If you’ve got a child going to these schools, that means they’re living at your house. And you’re supposed to know what’s inside your house. Don’t put that on the school. That’s on me, my responsibility.
You might walk out that door and go in one of these crack houses and get you a gun, but you sure aren’t going to take it out of this house here. I’m going to know what you’re walking in and out of this house with. My mama didn’t play. My mama would go and tear my room up. I’d come home and be mad as hell. I’m like, “Mom, what you doing?” And she’d be telling me to clean it.“Clean what? I didn’t tear it up. You tore it up, you clean it.”
“Well if you can’t clean it, get your ass out.”
That’s what we got to get back to. Taking back control of our households. You get that together, then you can deal with what’s going on at the schools.
When I was in ninth grade, my uncle came into school and tore my ass up in front of the whole class. I had been talking back to the teacher, telling her I wasn’t going to do this and that. He says, “Yeah, right.” Came right into that classroom and tore my ass up right there.
The Lens: How did you react to that?
Thompson: My uncle was from the military. I didn’t get to have a reaction.
“You think you’re a man? I’ma whup your ass in front of all these kids. You trying to show off in front of all of them? Let’s see who’s gonna win this one.”
Took his belt off and tore my ass up right there. And the teacher didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know how to react.
She said, “Mr. Thompson, Mr. Thompson … ” He said, “You called me. Don’t tell me to stop. He ain’t going to do that no more.”
And guess what? I didn’t.
The Lens: Talk a little bit about what’s ahead for you.
Thompson: The next 18 months is about accountability. I’m doing a tour with Barry Scheck, (the New York-based head of the Innocence Project). We’re focusing on 12 states, creating a panel in each one of them to look at prosecutorial abuse and wrongful imprisonment, suppressed evidence. The panels are going to be former prosecutors, judges, legislators, other people who can maybe create a change through legislation. We’re asking the attorneys general to step in, in every state, to try to show the need for accountability, to try to show why this particular area is so crucial.
If I got eight guys who were innocent off of death row, that means eight murderers are still on the streets. If I kill somebody and get away with it, I’m going to feel like I can do it again. And I’m probably going to do it again. But we don’t look at that as a part of the crime problem, a part of the crime problem that Harry Connick created.
The Lens: OK, that’s the official side of the problem. Bring us back down to ground level, to the community level. Because that’s where the dying is going on.
Thompson: We can start by cleaning our kitchen, our house, demanding things that used to be taken for granted, rules you had to abide by. What you had to abide by is what kept you straight. That’s where the parents, mothers, our leaders, our church can step in. If it’s a single mother with all these kids, the church men can step in and say to her son, “Why are you acting and behaving this way?”
Intervention like that is a way to show nurturing, a way to show love. We aren’t here to whup you, we aren’t here to chastise you, we’re here to help you. We’re here to try to figure out what we could do to change your life. That’s a totally different approach, from me just turning my back on him. He doesn’t have help from anybody. No schools – he going to these alternative schools where what’s going down is just as wild as on the streets… So who’s he going to turn to? One of these drop-in centers round here? You see what’s going on over there? Just pass over there. Where’s he going to turn to?
We can do small things. We could do like Booker T. Washington used to do back in the day, with the trade schools. We could train brick masons, because there’s a lot of work out there laying brick. We could train them as car mechanics. There’s always going to be cars. A lot of small trades. Think about it. The city gives out million-dollar contracts, for landscaping and cleaning. So why aren’t we putting these kids to work, the ones that have nothing to do, nowhere to go.
We’ve got to reassure our parents, make them feel safe again, that they can take that step. Because if you don’t you’re gonna lose. Either your son’s going to be dead or he’s going to be in jail for the rest of his life – one of the two.
So you’ve got to make a decision: Do you want to save him? And it might not be just that child you’re saving. Because you might have five others that that child is screwing up. You don’t want to accept it, but sure enough, if the other kids see what he’s doing, one of them is gonna follow.
And if he winds up in jail, do you know what’s going to happen? He’s going to put you in the poorhouse. “That’s my child! I got to save him!” So you worry yourself sick about getting a lawyer – but what about those four other kids. You’re fixing to lose all of them trying to save the one that’s gone bad. He made that decision, because he wasn’t listening. And so what are you going to do – support his poor judgment by buying him a legal defense? And putting all your other kids at risk of going homeless?
It’s a cycle that we’ve got to let go. Even though it might hurt.