Thank you and goodbye to DA Ken Thompson, the ‘People’s Prosecutor’
CASILDA E. ROPER-SIMPSON, ESQ. | 10/20/2016, 12:09 p.m.
Last week, we lost Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson, the “People’s Prosecutor.” When I heard of his passing, I did what most do after the shock of such an unexpected death. I reflected on Thompson. During my reflections I recalled the first time I met him.
I met him on Court Street, Brooklyn, N.Y., in the pursuit of justice for Abner Louima, who had been beaten and tortured by New York City police officers.
As most may recall, the brutalization of Abner Louima occurred Aug. 9, 1997. The late Carl Thomas, Brian Figueroux and I were the first attorneys on Louima’s case. After the family contacted Figueroux, we immediately went to Coney Island Hospital and saw and spoke with Louima. The brutality he experienced was heart wrenching.
When we arrived, investigators from the Internal Affairs Bureau of the New York Police Department were questioning Louima as to what had happened. Louima’s wife, Micheline, and his father were not allowed to enter the hospital room where he was being treated because at the time, he was “under arrest” for assault on a police officer. We were in complete disbelief that anyone could be subjected to this type of brutality by police officers and that the family was not allowed to be at his bedside. We knew we needed more. We had no confidence that then-District Attorney Charles Hynes could deliver the justice that was required for Louima, the Black community and the people of Brooklyn, the place where I was raised and was raising my three children. Both Thomas and Figueroa were former assistant district attorneys under the administration of Hynes, and I was a criminal defense attorney, representing individuals in Kings County. We needed the United States Attorney, Eastern District, to “take over” this case.
I recall, early one Sunday morning, while working on Louima’s case, Thomas told me to come with him downstairs, outside to Court Street. We were standing there and a tall young man approached us and Thomas engaged in a conversation with him. I said, “Hey Carl, who’s this guy?”
Thomas replied, “This is my friend, Ken. We went to law school together.”
The introduction was made and as they continued their conversation, I listened. I learned then that Thomas had called Thompson, then an assistant United States attorney with the New York Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s office. Thomas shared with Thompson that we needed the U.S. Attorney’s office to handle this case. We needed to find out the process and who to call. The conversation ended and Thompson walked up Court Street, toward Cadman Plaza.
Within a day, we received a call that the U.S. Attorney would meet with us. Thomas, Figueroux and I met with four representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s office. We were led into a room, with a very large oak table, which separated us from four assistant U.S. attorneys. Carl eloquently gave all the reasons why Hynes should not and could not handle Louima’s brutality case. More particularly, he articulated the fact that we needed justice for Louima and the community of Brooklyn, and changes in the New York City Police Department were necessary. This case was the case to start to make that happen. Within a few days, Aug. 18, 1997, Eastern District U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter announced that an investigation would be launched in Louima’s case, and he indicted the police officers. Thompson was one of the assistant U.S. attorneys on the case.
Once the U.S. Attorney was investigating the case, the dynamics of the case took a heck of a turn. Within a few days, the sewers and catch basins in the surrounding area of the 70th Precinct, the precinct where the brutalization of Louima occurred, were searched and the “stick” used to sodomize him was found in a sewer. Commanders, deputy commanders and some officers of the 70th Precinct were transferred, suspended or placed on desk duty. Witnesses were sought and interviewed, and their account of Louima’s brutalization provided the facts to indict, arrest and prosecute all the officers who took part in the brutality.
After initially meeting Thompson on Court Street that early morning, I saw him infrequently during the investigation of the case. However, my next interaction was on the day that one of the officers who brutalized Louima, Justine Volpe, was to plead guilty to the charges. As I waited on a very long line to enter the United States Eastern District Courthouse to be present during Volpe’s plea, Thompson, as he was walking to the courthouse, saw me standing in line and said, “Cas, what are you doing here?”
I responded that I was trying to get in to see the plea.
Thompson then said, “Come with me.”
As he entered the courthouse, with me walking behind him, he said to the guard, “She’s with me.”
Once inside, he went his way and I took the elevator to the courtroom. It was overflowing with the media, local activists, local politicians and clergy. As Volpe pleaded guilty and publicly stated the brutal acts he committed on Louima, the only sound heard in the courtroom were his words. When he paused to take a breath, the entire courtroom, filled with anywhere from 50 to 100 people, was still.
My eyes were also on Volpe’s father, a former police officer, who appeared to be in complete shock as Volpe spoke. But as I listened to Volpe’s plea and admission to his brutal act on Louima, several things loomed in my mind. How could any person do such brutal acts to another person? And I recalled when Louima was given photo arrays, while in the hospital, to identify the police officers who had brutalized him, all the various machines he was hooked up to—blood pressure monitor, heart monitor, brainwave monitor—started beeping. Clearly, the effect of seeing the photo of Volpe created a physical response from Louima.
Thompson, the young man I met on Court Street early one weekend morning was very instrumental in getting justice, not only for Louima but also for the residents of Brooklyn and New York City and the citizens of this country. The “People’s Prosecutor,” not knowing that he would be assigned the Louima matter, was instrumental in assisting his friend Thomas seek justice because the brutality affected each and every one of us.
Thompson, the criminal justice reform champion, listened to his friend on Court Street about the impact of this police brutality on Louima and decided the case needed to be handled by the U.S. attorney’s office because of the lack of confidence of the then district attorney.
I’m sure at that moment, Thompson realized that the worst case in the history of New York City needed to be handled by the U.S. attorney’s office, because the district attorney’s office had the type of relationship with the police officers they worked so closely with daily that would make the district attorney reluctant to indict an officer. That relationship with the local police would be removed if the U.S. attorney’s office handled the case.
During Thompson’s short tenure of 33 months as Brooklyn district attorney, he reformed the office and the way in which justice was administered. He felt that justice should be dispensed fairly, despite race, color, religion, gender or economic status. Thomas particularly reconstructed the Conviction Review Unit. Under his leadership, the convictions of 21 individuals who were “falsely found guilty” were reversed and they were released.
As an adjunct professor of criminal justice and a criminal defense attorney for more than 20 years, I was impressed but not surprised by Thompson’s commitment to justice. During many of my criminal justice classes, we speak of criminal justice reform. To know that I met, knew and interacted with Thompson, a game-changer and a criminal justice reformer has allowed me to teach and inform future criminologist, and share with them the changes Thompson made within the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. I am so proud, honored and blessed to have shared some moments with Thompson.
The criminal justice reforms and commitment to justice legacy of Thompson must be continued. It is imperative that each of us makes a commitment to be conscious of elections for local politicians who appoint, recommend and run for judicial positions. Be mindful of the elections for district attorney throughout the country and know and understand the impact that criminal justice reform has on all of us.
As I continue to reflect on Thompson, I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King—“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Honorable District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson, may you rest in peace and your family be comforted at this time of your passing.