We will be hearing a great deal more over the coming days/weeks/months about Georgia Thompson, primarily because her case is now being investigated by Congress in the dismissal of US Attorneys controversy.
But the recent appellate decision by the 7th US Court of Appeals that not only reversed her conviction, but actually acquitted her and ordered her release the same day is perhaps more notable for what it says about our criminal justice system, and how juries react to “evidence” than it is for the political fallout.
The jury convicted Ms. Thompson of 2 federal felony charges: causing misapplication of funds, and participating in a scheme to defraud the State of Wisconsin of the right to honest services, supposedly because she was involved in awarding a government contract to a company, not because they deserved it, but because she knew they had made a legal political donation to a sitting Democratic governor. In other words, for steering the contract to the company on the basis of essentially a kickback.
Now, without regard to the political motivation for the prosecution in the first place, was there even one tiny flaw with the Government’s case? Well…
No evidence, none, zip, zilch, nada to indicate that Ms. Thompson even knew that the company had donated to the governor’s campaign. Nothing. Literally nothing. (And again, it was a legal contribution.)
Listen here to approximately minute 12:30 of the oral arguments, where the State’s Attorney is asked, right off the bat:
Judge: Is your opponent correct that there is nothing in the record to indicate that the lady was aware of any contribution?
State’s Attorney: Of contributions specifically, that’s correct…
Shame on the prosecutors for bringing such a case in the first place. No evidence is no evidence, smoke and mirrors not withstanding.
Human beings know that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and too often this concept is applied by juries in criminal cases. The general public is probably unaware of how rare it is for an appellate court to not only reverse a conviction (say, because some evidence was improperly introduced, necessitating a new trial) but to actually acquit a defendant.
Ordering her immediate release is possibly unprecedented. And even further proof that the State’s case wasn’t just weak, but truly unjust.
We have to be able to rely on juries, however, to correct such blatant errors of prosecutorial overreaching.
Our jury system may be the best thing going, but this is pretty firm proof that juries wrongly convict more often than we like to admit.