Late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson was not yet funeralized last week when news reports emerged about who would replace Brooklyn’s first African-American district attorney. Tabloids printed stories that Public Advocate Letitia James was poised to take the job in downtown Brooklyn. However, Monday, Oct. 17, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ended all speculation late in the afternoon when he said, “I am announcing that no appointment will be made to fill the rest of District Attorney Thompson’s term. Until the next election, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office will continue to be led by Chief Assistant District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who District Attorney Thompson named earlier to continue his office’s work in his absence. Keeping the first deputy in place when there is midterm vacancy by a district attorney is consistent with past practice under this administration.”
Cuomo was among the politicos, clergy and legal eagles who peppered the audience at the Christian Cultural Center, when the East New York megachurch hosted both Thompson’s wake and the funeral.
Thompson, the Harlem-born, Bronx-raised quintessential New Yorker, was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx Saturday. Thompson was 50 years old.
In his statement Monday Cuomo noted, “While we continue to mourn the loss of District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, the important work of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office does not cease. District Attorney Thompson worked tirelessly to ensure that the Brooklyn district attorney’s office worked with a mandate to advance justice and treat everyone and every case fairly and with utmost integrity. We must continue that work without interruption or delay.
“Ken Thompson established a new model at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. His focus on proving innocence as well as proving guilt set a new precedent. His legacy should be the continuation of that model and his selection of the person who should run the office in his absence—his Number 2—should be honored.”
Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez replied, “I am deeply honored to be able to carry out District Attorney Thompson’s vision of equal justice for all in Brooklyn, and I pledge to continue his criminal justice reforms. I am fully committed to the important initiatives that we have put in place and will work every day to keep the people of Brooklyn safe. I thank Governor Cuomo for having the faith in me to carry on the important work of this office.”
Marquez Claxton, retired detective and director of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance told the AmNews, “Gov. Cuomo played it safe. Do nothing and avoid being accused of making a political appointment, while making a passive play to increase Latino support. It will be interesting to see who begins to line up for the race in 2017.”
It was only five days before his Oct. 9 death that Thompson released a statement saying that he had cancer and was stepping aside temporarily to fight the disease, while appointing Chief Assistant District Attorney Eric Gonzalez to head the office in his absence.
To say that the city was shocked over the news of his passing is an understatement. As the shock and mournful statements from officials to general community reverberated around the city, there was mostly considered silence from those who had been engaged this summer in the conflict over his controversial sentencing recommendation in the officer Peter Liang shooting death of Akai Gurley.
Thompson is survived by his wife of 17 years, Lu-Shawn Thompson; his two children, Kennedy and Kenny; and his mother, father, brother and sister. The family was by his side at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital when he made his transition.
There were barely held back tears from many of the speakers at the community send off at Sanders Studios NYC organized by Dee Bailey, and the wake and the funeral hosted at the Christian Cultural Center, from Friday to Saturday.
At the funeral, as she delivered a message of support from President Barack Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said of Thompson, “He literally changed the face of justice in Brooklyn … He changed what justice looked like. He changed what justice meant for so many people.”
Obama declared that Thompson “made a powerful difference.” The president stated that Thompson “dedicated himself to the long and difficult pursuit of justice.”
There were two days of wake and funeral and interment, with dozens of elected officials and notables, such as former Mayor David Dinkins, former Gov. David Paterson, Lynch, Cuomo, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Cong. Greg Meeks, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, Public Advocate Letitia James, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, attorney Casilda Roper-Simpson and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul joined thousands of mourners.
Speakers at the funeral included’ Thompson’s sister, Catherine “Cinda” Adams-Gaskin; Ronald K. Noble, former secretary-general of Interpol; the Hon. Sterling Johnson; Cuomo; Douglas Wigdor; attorney Keith Wright; the Hon. Raymond Lohier; the Rev. Clinton Miller; Ronald Sullivan; David McCallum; and Jeremy Travis, president John Jay College.
An emotional CCC Pastor A.R. Bernard delivered an impassioned eulogy.
It was noted by some in the congregation that Rep. Hakeem Jeffries went to church for real, sounding like one of the very pastors the room, such as Daughtry and the Rev. Conrad Tillard.
Cuomo told the audience that Thompson, “was the child of a police officer, a resident of public housing and an African-American man who grew up in New York City.” He added, “In just 33 months, his office proved that 21 men and women, mostly Black, Hispanic and poor, were all falsely found guilty by our criminal justice system.”
One of those victims of wrongful incarceration was David McCallum, he thanked Thompson for giving him his life back after spending 29 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Grateful, McCallum told the congregation, “Mr. Thompson not only gave me my freedom, but [he] gave me my 5-year-old daughter.”
The governor stated, “Most prosecutors work to prove guilt,” Cuomo said. “Ken’s office also worked to prove innocence.”
Now charged with holding things down until elections next year, Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Gonzalez told the congregation that Thompson had a progressive approach to the role of new sheriff in Brooklyn, New York City. Gonzalez said Thompson “knew we couldn’t incarcerate our way to safety.”
Thompson’s family released a detailed statement last week as news of his passing began to filter throughout the community.
“With a heavy heart, the family of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced that the district attorney died today after a hard fought battle with cancer.”
Sworn in as Brooklyn district attorney in 2014, Ken Thompson was elected the borough’s first African-American district attorney in 2013.
Having campaigned heavily on the promise to restore confidence in the criminal justice system, Thompson established his Conviction Review Unit, which, in three years, moved to vacate or support the dismissal of the convictions of 21 people who were wrongfully convicted of murder and other offenses.
In 2014, Thompson implemented a groundbreaking policy not to prosecute low-level marijuana possession arrests “in order to spare young people from the burden of a criminal record.”
Before being elected district attorney, Thompson served as a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, where he was a member of the team that successfully prosecuted former New York City police officer Justin Volpe in the brutal 1997 beating and torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
Thompson also served as a special assistant to the U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for Enforcement in Washington, D.C., and in the general counsel’s office at the Treasury Department. He was on the team of lawyers and federal agents that conducted the investigation ordered by President Bill Clinton of the 1993 raid on David Koresh and the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas.
After serving as a federal prosecutor, Thompson worked at a prominent international law firm. He then co-founded his own firm, where he represented victims of pregnancy discrimination, as well as those who had been subjected to unlawful prejudice because of their race, gender, age, religion or sexual orientation.
Thompson also worked with members of Congress and the clergy to convince the U.S. Department of Justice to reinvestigate the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
Thompson was born and raised in New York City. His mother, Clara Thompson, was one of the first female police officers in the NYPD to patrol the streets in 1973.
Public school alum Thompson went on to graduate magna cum laude from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He earned his law degree at New York University Law School.
“Brooklyn has lost a true champion of justice,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said in a statement. “Our borough stands united in mourning the terribly untimely passing of Ken Thompson, a man who set a gold standard for public service that has had a lasting impact across our country. From enacting marijuana prosecution reform to addressing the open warrant crisis for low-level offenses, he has introduced much-needed fairness and compassion into our criminal justice system. Furthermore, Ken’s commitment to the law and to the well-being of our children and families made our streets fundamentally safer.”
Adams concluded, “Ken was more than my colleague; he was my friend. I am honored to be beside him in the storied history of Brooklyn as the first African-American to hold borough wide office, and I know that many young men and women will reach a bit higher because of the heights that Ken reached in his career and his life. Let us all lift up his family and friends at this most difficult hour, and let us continue to support the men and women of the Kings County district attorney’s office who will further the mission that Ken Thompson laid out for our borough, city, state and nation.”