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Ken Thompson: Soft-Spoken Reformer Amidst a Sea of Injustice

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Sometimes it was hard to hear Ken Thompson. He had the light, quiet voice of a man not easily rattled, his sentences slow and measured. You could watch him and wonder where his fire was.

But Thompson had plenty of it, enough to drive him to the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn and maybe beyond, as the political winds continued to whip in the direction of progress. He died of cancer yesterday at the age of 50.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who ordered all flags lowered to half-staff on Monday and called Thompson an “effective, aggressive civil rights leader — and a national voice for criminal justice reform,” will choose a temporary successor to serve as Kings County DA until next year’s election. 

When Thompson ran for Brooklyn district attorney in 2013, he was not supposed to win. The logic of Democratic primaries all across the state dictates that incumbents defeat challengers. And Charles Hynes, who had held the office since 1990, had swatted away challengers before. It didn’t matter that Thompson wanted to make history as the first African-American district attorney in Brooklyn or that Hynes, once a reformer, had grown blind to his own corruption. Thompson was not supposed to win.

A former federal prosecutor with a successful private practice, he rose to prominence for making the opening statement at the trial of the former cop who would plead guilty to torturing Abner Louima with a broomstick. Later, as a trial lawyer, he represented the African-born hotel housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo, who accused the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping her in a Manhattan hotel room. Thompson failed: the Manhattan DA dismissed the case.

Hynes didn’t take Thompson seriously at first. In one email, he called him a clown. Hynes was always so sure of himself. Sure in the way he packed off innocent men to prison, like Jabar Collins, and viciously prosecuted a whistleblower who dared to expose child sex abuse rampant in Orthodox Jewish communities. In early 2013, the Voice convincingly argued that Brooklyn deserved a new district attorney. Thompson heeded the call.

Thompson ultimately won because voters recognized that Hynes had cultivated and enabled men like Louis Scarcella, a detective infamous for coercing confessions from innocent people, and Michael Vecchione, a top prosecutor involved in the wrongful conviction of Collins and several other scandals. Thompson was a progressive cause célèbre who deserved to be. He was a cool, deliberate presence on the campaign trail, rarely raising his voice as Hynes howled from his crumbling mountaintop.

Thompson had to slay the Brooklyn D.A. twice. After losing in the Democratic primary, Hynes broke his vow not to campaign on the Republican and Conservative Party lines. I was there at the Bay Ridge steakhouse when Hynes conceded in November, crushed at last in a landslide. Somber, and almost humbled, he admitted Thompson now had a mandate to run the office—and clean up his mess.

There was so much for Thompson to do. He was the first person in a half century to unseat a sitting district attorney, and maybe the first DA to confront a roomful of shredded documents. In a final act of petulance, Hynes had destroyed countless papers accumulated during his tenure, stuffing a conference room at 350 Jay Street with at least a dozen trash bags filled with paper. It was never clear what exactly he had shredded, only that his successor should never get his hands on it.

Thompson himself was fined $15,000 for using public funds to pay for personal food orders. If the tabloids are to be believed, he could be an imperial boss, sending his security detail to pick up dry-cleaning and take out the trash.

But that was all beside the point. Thompson arrived on a mission and sought to carry it out, making good on his campaign pledges. He took the lead in deciding to no longer prosecute New Yorkers, many of them poor and black, for possessing small amounts of marijuana. He moved to vacate or supported the dismissal of convictions of 21 people wrongly convicted of murder and other offenses, taking seriously the need to right the wrongs perpetrated under Hynes. He secured an indictment and a conviction of the cop who killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man in Brooklyn, though he enraged his family when he didn’t seek prison time for the officer, Peter Liang.

Thompson was the rare public official who talked about change and tried to make it happen. He had done so much, and still had so much left to do.

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