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In 1985, John Thompson was 22 when he was sentenced to death for the murder of Ray Luizza, a New Orleans hotel executive who was shot five times. That was the beginning of an 18-year journey that included a cell on death row and a close shave with execution. But after a retrial last month, a New Orleans jury acquitted Thompson of murder after just 35 minutes of deliberation. Thompson, now 40, left the Louisiana State Penitentiary a free man. State v. Thompson, No. 2002-K-0361 (Orleans Parish, La., Dist. Ct.). For many of those 18 years, Thompson wasn’t alone. Two partners in the Philadelphia office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius — J. Gordon Cooney Jr. and Michael L. Banks — took the case pro bono 15 years ago, back when they were midlevel associates building careers in employment and commercial consumer litigation. The victory was celebrated throughout Morgan Lewis. The firm had hired teams of investigators and enlisted the help, at one time or another, of 72 staff members from lawyers to paralegals to summer associates. That celebration capped years of gutsy legal work that also had its share of harrowing moments. At one point, the lawyers met with Thompson to tell him that their efforts had failed and his execution would be imminent. “I’ll never forget it,” Banks said, retelling how Thompson asked if they could change the date of his scheduled execution because he did not want to die on the day before his son’s high school graduation. The lawyers first heard of the case through the Loyola Capital Defense Fund, a legal defense fund for indigent death row inmates. It was an unpopular case with local lawyers because the murder victim was from a prominent New Orleans family, Banks said. Thompson and Kevin Freeman, another suspect who is now deceased, were arrested for the Liuzza murder in 1985, one month after Liuzza was shot on Dec. 6, 1984. Thompson was arrested after the police traced the gun to him. But a number of events led to his being wrongfully convicted, his lawyers asserted. The most crucial was a carjacking three weeks after the Liuzza murder. The victims of the carjacking, three teenagers, phoned the police identifying Thompson as their attacker after seeing his picture in the newspaper following his murder arrest. Thompson’s lawyers allege that the prosecution then switched the order of the trials, getting the carjacking conviction first so that Thompson’s prior criminal history became admissible if he testified in the murder trial. This maneuver kept Thompson from taking the stand to defend himself, they charged. THE BIG BREAK Cooney and Bank’s big break came in 1999, just one day after the court signed a writ calling for Thompson’s execution. A Morgan Lewis investigator turned up a police report showing that blood evidence had been retrieved from the carjacking. The blood swatch, type B, had never been revealed to the defense. The lawyers tracked down the carjacking victim, and had the victim and Thompson submit to blood tests. Both were type O. “The prosecution did what we all fear happens on rare occasions, but happens with devastating results,” Banks alleged. “They were more concerned that a possible murderer might go free than that an innocent man might be put to death.” A spokesperson for New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan said Jordan would not respond to allegations of misconduct because Thompson’s case was 20 years old and had been inherited from a prior administration. Cooney and Banks were allowed to retry the case after the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Thompson had been improperly deprived of his right to testify. Thompson was finally able to tell his story to a jury. “His testimony was absolutely necessary,” Banks said. “He had to explain how he got the gun.” Thompson has not decided if he will take further legal action.

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