It isn’t often that we devote the editorial page to the passing of one of our heroes, but there are times when more space should be set aside for such occasions. As it is for most of those who knew him and relished moments in his company, the sudden death of Kenneth Thompson was so shocking that it still reverberates, still seems so incomprehensible that we balk at accepting such a fateful reality.
I first met him during my coverage of the Abner Louima case in 1999 where he was a member of a team that successfully prosecuted former police officer Justin Volpe for sodomizing the Haitian immigrant. During the breaks in the trial he was the most accommodating lawyer, gladly spending time with reporters to explain the legal and political intricacies of the case. From these brief sessions it was clear to me that here was a promising servant of the court who was ready for the challenges of the legal arena. It was also an opportunity for me to meet his mother, and you could see where Ken got some of his confidence, his integrity and his sense of duty. He was proud to boast of her career as an officer, one of the first female officers to patrol the streets in the early 1970s.
While my contact with him was limited during the succeeding years as he settled in as a highly competent federal prosecutor, it resumed when he played a role in reopening the Emmett Till case, and we were in contact frequently after he began his career in private practice, particularly his partnership with attorney Doug Wigdor. I was often there with them when his law firm brought a lawsuit against Macy’s as they represented a woman who had been unlawfully detained and accused of shoplifting. He would call me whenever there was a case he believed needed wider coverage, and his prominence reached a new plateau in 2011 when he represented Nafissatou Diallo, who alleged that she was sexually assaulted by the former head of the International Monetary Fund while she was working as a housekeeper in a Manhattan hotel room.
This, along with other civil cases, provided him the popularity he needed to challenge District Attorney Charles Hynes in 2013. I remember reminiscing with him after his victory when he became the first African-American DA in Brooklyn. That was last October at the Schomburg’s 90th anniversary gala, and Ken was there with his wife, Lu-Shawn, and several members of his staff. It was a joyous moment and the only time I had ever been with him at a social gathering.
Our final time together came when I learned that he would be prosecuting a man charged with rooking pianist and composer Cecil Taylor out of a large sum of money. That was in April and, according to several accounts, it was shortly thereafter he began treatment for cancer.
Even so, in the interim, he remained in the public eye with his decision not to recommend jail time for Peter Liang, an officer convicted of killing an unarmed Black man in East New York. He was also in the spotlight for his stance on ending the prosecution of individuals charged with low-level amounts of marijuana.
There is no way to predict which way Ken was headed, but it would certainly be a destination full of attention, one that would keep his constituents ever mindful of change and possibility. He was a man of strong convictions with a passionate penchant for what he deemed fair-play and justice.
We will never know what he envisioned; we are left with a brief legacy of promise and fulfillment. I only regret that I didn’t keep my promise to spend more time with him and his family. And that, I feel, is a minor regret compared to what the citizens of Brooklyn may have lost.