Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson, RIP

For as long as I can remember, Kings County, better known to the rest of the world as Brooklyn, had a DA problem. It was a second-string job, never having the prestige of Manhattan, but being Brooklyn’s District Attorney was a huge job. After the fiasco known as Joe Hynes was finally thrown out on his butt as scandals revealed wrongfully convicted defendants by rogue, lying cops, a new guy rode in on his black horse to clean up the mess.

Ken Thompson was a former federal prosecutor, best remembered for his role in the prosecution of Justin Volpe, the cop who proudly sodomized Abner Louima in the bathroom of the 70th Precinct. Thompson went private practice until challenging Hynes for Kings County District Attorney. He won the election and took over the post in 2014, a reformer and racial justice activist who would clean up the mess on Court Street.

On Sunday, October 9th, at age 50, Ken Thompson died of cancer.

In the short time he held office, he accomplished quite a bit, including a Conviction Review Unit, where his assistants worked to exonerate 20 wrongfully convicted defendants.

The C.R.U. represents Thompson’s attempt to correct systemic flaws in Brooklyn’s criminal-justice apparatus, which have included poor oversight, inadequate independent review, and a lack of prosecutorial and police transparency—and which have enabled problems ranging from mistakes in judgment to deliberate misconduct.

Thompson’s unit differed from Watkins’s in that it sought to consider an expanded notion of justice. “They’re not simply looking at wrongful convictions in cases in which a person can prove his or her innocence. They’re also looking at cases where they may be innocent—we don’t know—but, definitely, the conviction has no integrity,”

But he was also attacked for his decision not to seek jail time for P.O. Peter Liang, who killed Akai Gurley in the stairwell of the Pink Houses. After convicting Liang of manslaughter for his recklessness, he let him walk, on the theory that there was no purpose served by incarcerating the ex-cop.

Thompson was by far more of a reformer than Kings County had ever seen before, but still not enough to prevent the peculiar criticism for his failure to do everything, make every decision, take every action, that activists wanted him to take. As if he wasn’t the District Attorney, but an activist sitting in the District Attorney’s office.

And in his waning months, Thompson got smacked for financial improprieties, BagelGate.  It was a foolish omission for Thompson, and in light of the fact that he already knew he was dying of cancer, an unfortunate salvo.

So Ken Thompson wasn’t perfect? So Ken Thompson wasn’t the Brooklyn DA that every racial justice activist dreamed of by doing their bidding at every instance? Maybe, but he was a damn sight better than anyone who sat in his chair before him.  And in the two years he held office, his accomplishments in undoing the decades of deliberate police and prosecutorial misconduct were huge.

Thompson used his office to walk people out of prison. Maybe not everyone convicted by the lying mutt detective Lou Scarcella or other bad prosecutions under his predecessor’s watch, but at least he was trying, doing something, doing better than anyone had ever done before.

It’s hard to know what would have become of Thompson. Higher office? Greater achievement in Kings County? More exonerations and a model district attorney’s office that sought to play by the rules rather than rack up convictions? But in the two years he held the post, he accomplished a great deal, and a great deal of good. That’s what he should be remembered for.

Thank you, Ken Thompson. Rest in peace.

7 thoughts on “Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson, RIP

  1. B. McLeod

    Maybe the illness helped to give him a different perspective. He didn’t have to worry about staying in office, and could focus on substantive things that mattered.

    1. SHG Post author

      My understanding is that it was very aggressive cancer and he learned of it only two months ago. By then it had already metastasized and it was too late.

      I wonder if he would have done things differently had he known earlier. It’s an interesting question.

  2. sam

    He was a real model for how District Attorneys should be (but often are not) seekers of “justice” rather than merely “convictions”.

    He’s featured in Ava Duvernay’s new documentary “13th”, which addresses many issues with our criminal justice system. It was just released on Netflix Friday, so a lot of people outside of NY were getting a first introduction to him. I learned that he died only moments after finishing watching it yesterday.

  3. PaulaMarie Susi

    I knew Ken for over 20 years, since his earliest days as an AUSA. Always a straight shooter, always doing what he felt was right and just. I always thought I’d see him on the bench one day. If “bagelgate” was the only holdover from the Hynes era, I can live with that. I’m going to miss my friend.

    1. SHG Post author

      I never knew him from EDNY, but a mutual friend who worked with him and whom I respect greatly also said he was a stand up guy and did what he believed to be right. Sorry that we’ll never see how far he would take it.

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