Local author writes of New Orleans murder conviction, exoneration

Katrina evacuee Ronald Gauthier knows New Orleans inside and out, including the prison system.

A librarian and a guidance counselor, Gauthier worked for years in adult literacy programs, teaching ex-offenders to read, and conducting classes inside the prisons of Orleans Parish.

His twin skills came into play when he served as co-author of “Killing Time: An 18-Year Odyssey from Death Row to Freedom,” about the exoneration of John Thompson, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1985.

Gauthier moved to Atlanta and became a librarian in the Mountain Park branch of the Gwinnett County library system. He sifted through thousands of documents while researching Thompson’s trial. He also drew on his own knowledge of prison life. But though he’d made many trips to the Orleans Parish prison, he’d never been to death row.

“John, I thought, was incredibly strong to have experienced 18 years of confinement, 14 on death row,” said Gauthier, 51, who will speak about “Killing Time” on Sunday at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. “I was fascinated to see someone that emerged from that environment. I wanted to tell his story.”

Gauthier made 11 trips back to his native New Orleans to interview Thompson and others for the book, which he co-authored with attorney John Hollway.

During each of those trips he watched his crippled city slowly recovering from the destruction of the hurricane and flood. Gauthier's home was lost during the storm, and his work at the New Orleans library was permanently interrupted. "It destroyed my home and it also destroyed my job," he said.

He weathered the storm in the Hyatt Regency. When he was flown out of the city days later, he noted the flight attendants were wearing gloves and masks. A resident of Midtown Atlanta for the past five years, he said proudly, "I consider myself a local author."

Thompson’s story isn’t over yet.

He was 22 years old when he was sentenced to death for the murder of a hotel manager in the Central City section of New Orleans. He was 40 years old and his two children were grown when he was released from prison, his sentence overturned, after years of pro bono work by a group of Philadelphia lawyers.

In October the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the appeal of a civil suit filed on Thompson’s behalf against Orleans Parish district attorney Harry Connick Sr. (the singer’s father) and his office. Lower courts awarded Thompson $14 million in 2007, but attorneys representing the parish have appealed.

"We hope John will be victorious," Gauthier said.

AJC DECATUR BOOK FESTIVAL

Ronald Gauthier speaks 11:15 to 11:45 a.m. Saturday, at the Decatur Conference Center auditorium, Holiday Inn, 130 Clairemont Ave., Decatur, and Sunday, 12:45 p.m., at the Local Prose stage at Twain's, 211 East Trinity Place;  free. Information: 404-471-5769, www.decaturbookfestival.com

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