The Empty Chair
How Robert Glass helped save an innocent man from death row
Published in 2008 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine
By Maggie Koerth-Baker on December 27, 2007
After more than 35 years as a criminal defense lawyer, Robert Glass of Glass & Reed in New Orleans has stories to tell. He was instrumental in freeing feminist Ginny Foat from a murder charge in 1983, represented rap star Corey “C-Murder” Miller in a second-degree murder conviction appeal in 2006 and has handled numerous less glamorous and pro bono cases for clients who couldn’t afford the justice they deserved. But, despite all that, Glass’ favorite legal moment came when he had the privilege of cross-examining an empty chair.
In 1999, after 14 years on Louisiana’s death row, prisoner John Thompson narrowly escaped being executed when his lawyers, Gordon Cooney and Michael Banks of Morgan Lewis, uncovered evidence that had long been hidden from the court. “He’d been prosecuted for an unrelated robbery case before his murder trial and because of that, he hadn’t testified on his own behalf,” Glass says. “But [Cooney and Banks] found out that blood evidence exonerating him of the robbery charge had been deliberately hidden by the state. Almost all record of it had actually been destroyed.”
The new evidence was enough to get Thompson a new trial for the murder charge, which was how Glass came to be involved in the defense. “Banks and Cooney came by to talk about ideas for the new trial and I became so outraged by what I heard that I ended up offering to assist them,” he says.
So how did he end up cross-examining a chair? During Thompson’s original trial for murder, the prosecution had relied heavily on a co-defendant who testified against Thompson in exchange for a lenient sentence. “This man had testified that he’d been with John in the evening before John had wandered off to rob and kill the victim. But in the intervening years there’d been some new evidence, including a statement the witness had given to private investigators that contradicted his trial testimony,” Glass says.
Unfortunately, by the time of Thompson’s retrial in 2003 that witness had died.
Determined to get the new evidence before the jury, the legal team came up with an innovative solution: proceed with the cross-examination as though the witness were still alive. “I think it was Gordon Cooney’s idea. We asked the judge to allow us to supplement the old cross-examination with a new cross-examination of the empty chair as though the witness was still on the stand,” Glass says. “We devised a series of questions that couldn’t be criticized as inaccurate by the prosecution. ‘You testified X at the trial, but later said Y.’”
After about 20 of these questions, the cross-examination built to a startling revelation––the witness himself had been the real murderer. “The people in the courtroom who heard it said that it was mesmerizing,” Glass says. That included the jurors. In May 2003, they declared Thompson innocent of the murder charge, freeing him from prison––and death row––after almost 20 years.
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