Killing Time: Resurrecting Death Row's Exonerated

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NEW ORLEANS - When a criminal leaves prison, there are often social programs to help him return to society. But that is not the case for the 140 death row inmates whose convictions have been overturned.

John Thompson is number 108. The Louisiana man spent 14 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

He is now using lessons he learned first-hand to help others who have been exonerated.

Death Row Tales

In an interview with CBN News, Thompson recounted the nights of executions at Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary.

"On the night of an execution, you can see all these people gathering outside the prison," Thompson said. "Lighting candles, some doing the candle lighting. On the other side, people saying, 'Kill, kill, kill.'"

Thompson's personal death row tale began in 1984 after the robbery and murder of a New Orleans hotel executive.

Author Ronald Gauthier chronicles the case in his book Killing Time.

"New Orleans was a very high crime city. The murder rate was just sky-rocketing at that time," Gauthier described the time period of the crime.

"Ray Liuzza was from a wealthy family, hotel executive. So it was a high profile case from the very beginning, so the pressure was on the district attorney's office to get this case solved and solved quickly," he explained.

New Orleans police quickly arrested a man who pointed the finger at Thompson. Five months later, the 22-year-old father of two sat in jail. A jury convicted of him of murder and an unrelated car-jacking.

"When the judge sentenced me to death, he tells you about how he is going to kill you," Thompson said. "How much electric volts are going to run through your body."

"I wasn't ready for what was ahead of me," he said.

Innocence Irrelevant

Thompson spent the first four years of his incarceration at the Orleans Parish Prison. But the true reality of his death sentence didn't hit him until guards moved him to Angola.

He arrived at his cell to find the clothes of man who had just been executed, still inside.

"That really blew me away," Thompson recalled. "I started throwing the stuff out in the hallway. They were laughing at me, saying, 'You better get used to that little brother.'"

However, there was not much laughter during his 14 years of solitary confinement.

"John Thompson, while he was on death row, had seven stays of execution," said Gauthier, recounting some of his research for the book. "That means he had the death warrant brought to his cell. He was prepared for execution seven times."

"It's not about whether you did it or not anymore," Thompson said. "It's irrelevant. It is totally irrelevant whether you are innocent or not because they are here to kill you. So you have one common goal and that is to try to stay alive by any means necessary."

That included finding high-powered Pennsylvania attorneys Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney to take his case. By 2003, they had exhausted every appeal.

Thompson recalled the final days before his scheduled execution.

"They were going to execute me May 20. My son was going to graduate May 21," he said. "So the next day after I was executed, my son was going to graduate from right around the corner."

Before Thompson could be executed, a death bed confession from an original prosecutor led investigators to uncovered evidence: blood test results, testimonies, and conflicting eyewitness accounts.

"He was actually re-tried and it took the jury less than 35 minutes to acquit him of the murder," Gauthier said. "So John was freed."

Helping the Exonerated

Thompson wouldn't be alone. The cases of seven inmates he met on death row saw their convictions eventually overturned as well.

"John was on death row for 10 years when a 16-year-old black boy from New Orleans was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death and placed in a cell directly next door to John Thompson," Gauthier told CBN News. "And the first thing he said to John was, 'I didn't commit this murder.'"

That 16-year-old was Shareef Cousin. His story inspired Thompson to start RAE, Resurrection After Exoneration.

It's a facility and a program to help exonerees with housing, job training, and medical help. He's also pulled the community together to support their cause.

"I think we are supposed to have big dreams and big ambitions, but I believe we are supposed to have love and we are supposed to have compassion," Thompson said. "I think that is what our life is supposed to filled with."

RAE's walls are lined with faces of those who've experienced that compassion. That includes exoneree number 91, Michael Ray Graham, Jr., who spent 14 years on death row.

Graham shared his story with CBN News in an interview at RAE's headquarters.

"I believe what my father told me when I was young that the truth will set you free," Graham said. "But in Louisiana it is a little different. You sweat here."

A photograph of Derrick Jamison, number 119, is also on the walls. He lost 20 years of his freedom.

Jamison recalled the day he walked out of an Ohio jail.

"The day I came home from death row it felt like, you know how a kid feels that day before Christmas," he said. "If I could bottle that feeling up and sell it, I'd be a billionaire."

A Resurrected Life

The justice system dealt Thompson one blow since his 2003 release. A jury had awarded him $14 million in a civil suit against the New Orleans district attorney.

But a divided U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2011, saying while prosecutors admittedly failed to carry out justice, the district attorney was not ultimately responsible.

Thompson is still not bitter.

"When I think about what God has allowed me to do so far with my freedom and the help that He has allowed me to provide for others, I can't complain, you know," he told CBN News.

He's now happily married. And together, he and his wife have seven children and 12 grandchildren.

He often jokes the prosecution may rest, but he won't. That is, until his work is no longer needed.

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Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

News Anchor & Reporter

Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.