Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson passed away today at the age of 50 and as result the City of NY – no, the United States of America – lost one of the greatest champions of the wrongfully convicted. Ken was a sharp, brilliant lawyer who went from the US Attorney’s Office to leading a successful and prominent law firm to being the chief law enforcement officer of Kings County, New York. He ran a tough campaign against a long-standing, politically powerful, incumbent District Attorney named Charles Hynes. And he ran it on the promise of cleaning up some of Hynes’ mess. He became the first public official I can ever recall who won an election promising reform and an increased attention to the plight of the innocent people who are serving jail time.
Ken’s office continued to fight crime of course – it boasts a strong conviction rate as it deals with some of the toughest areas of New York. But his legacy will always be the establishment of his Conviction Review Unit. Ken’s CRU has become a model for the nation. Why? Because first and foremost, he started it with the understanding that there are wrongful convictions and that a DA’s Office is in the best position to right those wrongs. He did not see his role as upholding the “integrity” of the conviction or of the office. Integrity would come from doing what’s right regardless of consequence. As long as the review was fair and thorough, he did not care what the outcome was. While his CRU has upheld many more convictions than it has overturned, his office has been a shining beacon for the wrongfully convicted. He placed at its head Ronald Sullivan, a distinguished Harvard law professor who never prosecuted a criminal case in his life. His whole legal career was comprised of representing the indigent including serving as head of Washington DC’s Legal Aid Society and being President Obama’s appointee to run the Legal Aid Society in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Ken invested over $1 Million in CRU, putting his money where his mouth is. It remains the best-staffed CRU in the country. He established an Independent Review Board made up of distinguished and experienced former prosecutors and defense lawyers who would then review CRU’s decisions on cases. He was unafraid to let others look under the rug and see what was swept under there.
I had worked on the case of David McCallum and Willie Stuckey for ten years. I had presented a plethora of evidence of their innocence to Hynes’ Conviction Integrity Unit – a one lawyer one investigator operation at the time. It all fell on deaf ears. Time after time our plea for a review of the case went nowhere. Our team was told to come back when we had figured out who actually committed the crime. When I pointed out that I thought that was the DA’s job and that our job was just to establish our clients’ innocence, I was told not to bother them any more. And then Ken was elected. I had known Ken from his days in private practice and were actually adversaries on a very high-profile matter involving my client David Johnson, who was then a top aide to NY Governor David Patterson. While we were on opposite sides of the case and things got very volatile on several occasions, we built a mutual respect and admiration for each other that continued after the case ended. About a week after he won, I told him I was going to call him about a case that needed looking into. He said, “You got it. Call me in February when things settle down.” I told him Hynes had looked at it a few times but we were rejected. He said that did not matter to him and that he would take me at his word that the case needed attention and promised he would give it the attention it deserved. True to his word, he did and on October 15, 2014, I walked David McCallum out of jail after 29 years in jail for murder he didn’t commit. Willie Stuckey had already died in prison). David is now a free man, working at the NY Legal Aid Society and has just fathered a daughter, Quinn Nicole McCallum. Quinn would not be on the planet today with Ken and his CRU team.
At the press conference announcing David’s release, I was asked to say a few words. I pointed out that once a person got elected to the Office of District Attorney, they were bestowed the honorific of “Honorable.” Well Ken earned that title not just by election but the hard way, by being a man of principle and integrity. By being a man of his word. By being someone who understood that sometimes, the system does not get it right. That sometimes, the only people that can redress those wrongs are those that are working within the system. That acknowledging our system’s flaws and errors is not weakness or being “soft on crime” but instead is a reflection of intellect, reason and compassion. I will miss you my friend, but more importantly the criminal justice system will greatly miss you. My heart, thoughts and prayers go out to your wife and children. May you rest in peace and may your legacy be a guidepost for future prosecutors everywhere.