NEW YORK — In his short time as Brooklyn’s top prosecutor, Kenneth Thompson became known perhaps as much for the convictions he disavowed as the ones he got.
Thompson, who died of cancer Sunday during his first term as Brooklyn’s district attorney, agreed to overturn 21 convictions and re-examine more than 100 in one of the most ambitious efforts of its kind. It made him a leading voice in a national conversation about what part prosecutors can play in addressing claims of wrongful conviction.
“Ken became the role model for prosecutors all over the United States in understanding the difference between a prosecutor defending convictions and a prosecutor seeking justice,” said Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, a national legal group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. “And he raised the bar pretty high.”
The 50-year-old prosecutor’s death came just four days after he announced his diagnosis. For now, chief Assistant District Attorney Eric Gonzalez is leading the office, though Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo may appoint someone to serve out Thompson’s term. Cuomo’s office said Monday it was reviewing options.
Thompson became Brooklyn’s first African-American district attorney in 2014. A former federal prosecutor, he’d become known in private practice for representing a hotel maid who accused former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011 of sexual assault; Strauss-Kahn denied it, criminal charges were dismissed and a civil case was settled.
Like several other prosecutors around the country, longtime Brooklyn DA Charles “Joe” Hynes had created a special unit to review challenged convictions. But after questions about a former police detective’s tactics put dozens of decades-old homicide convictions under scrutiny, Thompson successfully campaigned on pledges to do more.
Within months of taking office, he upped the number of conviction review prosecutors from three to 10 in a $1 million-a-year effort that also boasted three investigators and other staffers. He hired a Harvard Law School professor to guide the work and appointed a panel of experienced lawyers to give their outside, volunteer input. The unit’s docket soon grew to more than 90 cases.
“It is our fundamental duty as prosecutors to do justice,” Thompson said last year. “And that means to do what is right.”
Exoneration experts said few, if any, prosecutors had tackled such a sweeping examination all at once, and fellow DAs looked to it as an example.
“Ken really, I think, led the nation in the commitment and the size of his office’s efforts in investigating claims of wrongful conviction” and in combining internal and external reviewers, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.
Thompson’s initiative has spurred Vance to consider changes to his own conviction review unit, begun six years ago, he said. In Chicago, Democratic state’s attorney candidate Kim Foxx has pointed to Thompson’s conviction review work on the campaign trail.
While Thompson’s office won convictions in some high-profile cases — including a police officer’s deadly shooting of an unarmed black man in a dark stairwell — his review unit freed some people who had been behind bars for decades.
Thompson often went to court to watch the cases be dismissed and give the former defendants handshakes or hugs.
He also stood by about 40 other convictions after reviewing them, and his office is fighting some wrongful-conviction claims in court.
Still, one such defendant’s lawyer, Glenn Garber, the founder of the Exoneration Initiative legal group, calls Thompson “a trailblazer” who “really cared about improving the criminal justice system.”
So does the attorney who represents ex-Detective Louis Scarcella, who’s seen nearly 60 of his cases come under review. People challenging their convictions said Scarcella fabricated confessions, manipulated witnesses and intimidated suspects; he denies any wrongdoing.
Six convictions have been reversed, but prosecutors have said they found no evidence Scarcella engaged in misconduct.
“Ken Thompson,” Scarcella lawyer Alan Abramson said, “should always be remembered as a prosecutor who sought justice.”