the criminal justice system

The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends Toward Brooklyn: Ken Thompson’s Mission for Racial Equality in the Justice System

Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson riding in car and talking with staff
Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson returning to his office on Jay Street last fall. Photo: Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

A few days before Christmas, Ken Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, went to visit a stairwell in the Louis Pink Houses, a public-housing complex in East New York, arguably the city’s most dangerous neighborhood. A month earlier, rookie police officer Peter Liang had discharged his service weapon while patrolling a dark stairwell leading from the building’s top floor. The bullet ricocheted off the wall, striking and killing Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old who had just entered the stairwell with his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, when the elevator they were waiting for didn’t come.

Inside the building, Thompson was met by Marc Fliedner and Joe Alexis, the veteran Brooklyn prosecutors investigating the shooting. A few weeks earlier, Thompson had announced he would impanel a grand jury to consider a criminal indictment of Liang, but before presenting his case to the jurors, he wanted to get a firsthand look at the stairwell.

I had to see it,” Thompson told me. “I told folks I wanted to be fair to Akai Gurley and fair to the police officer, and to ensure that, I had to see it.”

Thompson’s political-origin story is Bloomberg-esque. After growing up in Harlem, he earned a fortune by co-founding a law firm specializing in employment-discrimination cases. He invested more than $500,000 of his own savings into his 2013 bid for district attorney. In his brief tenure, Thompson, who is 49, has pushed an agenda intentionally designed to combat racial bias in the justice system. In the process, he has become an increasingly visible political presence, eclipsing his fellow DAs and many of the city’s officeholders.

This past summer, Thompson announced a policy to stop prosecuting most low-level marijuana cases, which disproportionately affect minorities. He’s also vacated the convictions of a dozen inmates who his prosecutors concluded were wrongfully convicted, and he has shown a willingness to indict police officers, an often difficult proposition for prosecutors, who rely heavily on police to build their cases. In November, Thompson indicted two officers for allegedly punching and pistol-whipping a 16-year-old, and in February, he charged an officer who was caught on video stomping on the head of a subdued suspect. “He’s really prepared to take on the police department,” says James Cohen, a professor of criminal law at Fordham, “and that is not common among district attorneys in general and in particular in this city.”

A day after Gurley’s death, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton called the shooting an “unfortunate accident” and made it clear that Gurley had done nothing to provoke the shot. But in the weeks to follow, as a grand jury failed to indict an officer for the August killing in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, and another in Staten Island refused to indict an officer caught on video putting Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold, Gurley’s death began to take on a new meaning, becoming not just an unfortunate accident but the latest chapter in the national narrative about race, justice, and police overreach. In the halls of the Pink Houses, someone hung a poster mentioning Liang next to a photo of an Asian officer: THIS IS THE FACE OF A KILLER. Another poster mentioned Liang alongside fellow NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the cops cleared in the deaths of Garner and Brown. WANTED FOR MURDER, it read.

In February, Thompson charged Liang with second-degree manslaughter, a felony carrying a maximum 15-year prison sentence. He has indicated that the charge is based not just on the fired shot but on how Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, behaved afterward. “They saw him lying there,” Thompson said, announcing the indictment. “The evidence will show they did not render medical assistance … They were trained to provide CPR.”

The upcoming Liang trial will be a test of Thompson’s ability both as a prosecutor and a rising political talent. “His greatest weakness is that he cares deeply,” says Al Sharpton, who has become closer with Thompson since his election. “He’s got to make sure his caring does not get in the way of executing the way he wants.”

NYPD officer Peter Liang in February after being charged with second-degree manslaughter. Photo: Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Thompson is a born overachiever. He’s tall and commanding, with a quick smile and hand on the shoulder. He has the prosecutor’s tendency to be cautious with his language, which can at times make him seem stiff. In law school, one professor chided him for wearing a sport jacket to class, and it’s hard to spot him without his suit jacket buttoned.

This fall, I caught up with Thompson on his Sunday-morning church circuit in East New York, where he often goes to introduce himself to constituents. While riding with his security detail, he said he still struggled to believe his own success.

Look, I’m not going to toot my own horn,” he told me, “but for me to sit here and talk with you as Brooklyn DA based on where I come from — I’d take you right to the building I started out in, and you’d see those kids running around. That was me.”

Thompson was raised in the projects. His childhood home was an apartment in the Robert Wagner Houses, a collection of 22 buildings in East Harlem, and, much like the Pink Houses, it was plagued by gangs, drug dealers, and routine chaos. Thompson was raised by a single mother, Clara, who became one of the first female NYPD officers to walk a beat. “She would leave with her uniform on; she would come back with her uniform on,” Thompson recalled. “That made an impression on me.” As a child, Thompson developed a familial respect for the NYPD, and the job allowed Clara eventually to move her family out of Wagner.

Thompson was a bookish kid and a good student. He attended NYU Law School, followed by stints at the Treasury Department in Washington and in the Eastern District as a federal prosecutor. In 1999, he was tapped to give the opening statements in the case against a handful of NYPD officers who sodomized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.

To practice, Thompson, who was still a junior attorney, spent hours rehearsing in front of the mirror in the men’s bathroom at work. He also received coaching from his pastor, the Reverend A. R. Bernard, whom Thompson considers one of his closest confidants. Watching Thompson learn how to speak to jurors, Bernard recognized his potential. “I began to see in him something more than just legal counsel,” he told me. “Somewhere along the line, he had a political future.”

Bernard’s church, Christian Cultural Center in Canarsie, is regarded as the largest in the city, claiming some 37,000 congregants. Thompson and his wife, Lu-Shawn, have been attending Bernard’s services for more than 15 years. Before Bernard started preaching out of a storefront in Greenpoint, he worked as a banker, and his sermons are often infused with practical tips on how to improve life and generate wealth — part spirituality, part business plan. Congregants bring pads of paper to Sunday prayers and take notes as Bernard outlines points on a white board.

You have to see it,” Thompson told me, directing his security detail to the church. “Denzel Washington comes here. Curtis Martin of the Jets, Jason Kidd, when they were playing.” Inside, one of Thompson’s detectives showed me the facility’s two sanctuaries (equipped with TV cameras to broadcast sermons), its café, its massive fish tank, ATMs, and the gift shop. Outside Bernard’s office, in another corner of the building, Thompson peered into a private dining room. “I had lunch with Mayor Bloomberg right there,” he said. As we milled about, the DA discreetly pointed out Star Jones and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul waiting to see Bernard.

Thompson credits Bernard for his political life. “He strengthened me and has given me faith to do the work I’m doing, in protecting everyone,” he said. Soon after making the opening argument in the Louima case, Thompson wanted to run for office, but Bernard told him to wait. “I told him, ‘Look, you need to build up your practice, build yourself up financially, so when you do decide to run for office, you don’t have to owe anyone anything,’ ” Bernard said. “He listened, and when we both thought the time was right, he did it.

Ken sees this as a calling. He sees this as a divine summons to have a platform to engage in what is very close to his heart.” Following Bernard’s plan, Thompson started work in the private sector, eventually opening his own firm with two partners, landing multimillion-dollar settlements with companies like Walmart, Six Flags, and Macy’s; Thompson’s firm sued the latter for unfairly targeting minorities for shoplifting.

Thompson’s most famous client was Nafissatou Diallo, the Sofitel housemaid who claimed she was sexually assaulted by IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a criminal charge the Manhattan DA’s office ultimately dropped. Thompson became a point of controversy after he allowed Diallo to appear on national television and later held a press conference in which he accused prosecutors of not taking his client seriously.

When Thompson ran for DA, the Times’s editorial board accused him of drawing too much attention to himself and his cases in the media. “We were not reassured by his publicity-oriented approach to representing Nafissatou Diallo,” the editorial board wrote in its tepid endorsement of him.

Fortunately for Thompson, Times readers aren’t the core of his base. Instead, his votes came from East New York, Bed-Stuy, Flatbush, and other neighborhoods populated predominantly by minorities. Thompson supporters represent a power shift in Brooklyn politics that has helped propel the careers of a generation of local black politicians, including the city’s public advocate Tish James, New York state senator John Sampson, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.

For decades, Brooklyn was dominated by what operatives once called the three I’s: Irish, Italian, and Israel. But as those white and working-class voters died, left the city, or became Bloomberg Republicans, their space within the Democratic machine has been filled with black voters from Central Brooklyn, and old political clubs have been replaced by power churches. “The church was key,” Thompson said.

Thompson also received a campaign boost from his opponent, Charles Hynes, the incumbent whose two-decade career as DA imploded in spectacular fashion during the race. Hynes’s office was dogged by allegations of misconduct, including reports that cops planted evidence to make cases and that attorneys failed to aggressively pursue sexual-assault allegations against Hasidic men in exchange for political support. Since his defeat, Hynes has come under scrutiny for allegedly using money obtained through asset forfeiture to pay a campaign consultant.

In November, I met Thompson in his office on Jay Street, high above the courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn. The walls of his office offer a highlight reel of his first year as DA. Behind his desk, for instance, is a framed op-ed he published in the Times in which Thompson offered up ideas on how to streamline the prosecution of low-level crimes like marijuana possession. Going after petty arrests, he felt, was a waste of his prosecutorial resources. The arrests were also unfairly distributed. “Nearly 90 percent of the people being arrested were people of color,” he said. After Thompson instructed prosecutors to stop charging those arrested with small amounts of marijuana, those same Times editors who snubbed him during the race applauded the policy, and the paper helped bolster Mayor de Blasio’s citywide decriminalization effort. Before the city’s policy went into place, Thompson says his office declined to prosecute 815 marijuana cases. “Mostly young men of color that I’ll never meet.

Race has given me an understanding of how some people feel,” Thompson said. He told me his own story about getting pulled over on the Long Island Expressway. He was driving with his partner to a court appearance. The police officer, Thompson recalled, looked inside his silver Range Rover, then asked Thompson’s partner, who is white, if the car was his. “I said, ‘No, this is my car.’ Did it look like I was driving Miss Daisy?” Thompson was furious. “We both were wearing suits,” he went on. “It didn’t leave me bitter, man, it’s just something I remembered.”

On the other side of Thompson’s office, past courtroom sketches of his opening argument in the Louima case and a picture with President Obama, he showed me a poster board that features 12 inmates (11 black, one Latino) whose convictions Thompson has vacated and who collectively served some 235 years in prison for crimes Thompson believes they did not commit. Currently under review by his attorneys are about 100 other cases, most of them linked to Louis Scarcella, a detective alleged to have falsified confessions and trumped up evidence.

During the campaign, Hynes downplayed the Scarcella controversy, reassuring the public he’d already put together a unit, named the Conviction Integrity Unit, to review the potentially tainted cases. When Thompson took over, he found that that wasn’t really true.

When I walked through the door, there were 550 prosecutors in the office and only two were assigned to Conviction Integrity,” Thompson said. “They weren’t even sitting next to each other. They were on different floors in the office.” Thompson renamed the office the Conviction Review Unit, and staffed it with ten prosecutors, three full-time investigators, and a wrongful-conviction expert who commutes from Harvard.

I don’t know any office that within a year of taking over has thrown out a dozen cases from the predecessor,” says Bennett Gershman, a Pace Law professor. “Murder cases! It’s just not done.” Thompson has been able to move so quickly, in part, by lowering the threshold for releasing inmates. Instead of seeking a full exoneration, which would require prosecutors to file motions claiming that new evidence called the conviction into question, Thompson has asked judges to simply nullify the convictions. He’s not making the legal argument that the inmates are innocent; instead, he’s arguing their convictions are based on insufficient evidence. The posture has allowed Thompson to free convicted felons without going through a lengthy written-appeals process. In fact, he has left practically no official paper record of the convictions he’s vacated.

The standards definitely feel a little looser,” says Taylor Koss, one former Brooklyn prosecutor who reviewed problematic cases for Hynes. Now in private practice, Koss represented Jonathan Fleming, whose conviction for murder Thompson vacated last year. “They just called me one day and said, ‘Hey, your guy is getting released tomorrow. Be in court at 2:30 p.m.’ I was shocked. I was like, ‘Don’t we need to fill out any paperwork here?’ ” Koss was told he didn’t need to file a motion. Instead, he read various statutes into the court record to create a paper trail, so Fleming would have some record of the circumstances surrounding his release. (Like many released inmates, Fleming plans to file suit against the city; legal paperwork alleging a former inmate’s innocence is typically central to such compensation claims.)

Thompson’s prosecutors also reviewed the case of David McCallum, who was convicted of kidnapping and murdering 20-year-old Queens resident Nathan Blenner in 1985. McCallum came to national attention after the boxing champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, himself wrongfully imprisoned for two decades, wrote an op-ed imploring Thompson to review the case. McCallum and his co-defendant, who died in prison, were convicted based primarily on a videotaped confession. Hynes’s prosecutors had looked into McCallum’s conviction and felt there wasn’t enough new evidence to pursue his release, but after six months of review, Thompson and his team came to believe the police had coerced McCallum and his co-defendant into making a false confession and ordered McCallum’s release.

Thompson’s prosecutors made their assessment without contacting the case’s original prosecutor, Eric Bjorneby, now a Nassau County judge, who only found out about McCallum’s release after the fact. “It was mysterious and inappropriate,” said Bjorneby, who questioned the integrity of a vacated conviction in which the prosecutor wasn’t consulted.

Thompson defended the decision. “The video [confession] is what convicted these guys,” he told me. “Two young, poor black boys from Bushwick going to Queens and doing a carjacking at 16? No one could even prove that they could drive.”

Throughout the winter months, as Thompson and his prosecutors collected evidence in their case against Peter Liang for the death of Akai Gurley, protests against police violence swelled. In New York, protesters shut down major avenues and bridges and thousands marched up Fifth Avenue. As the anger over police violence spread, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman proposed establishing an independent body to investigate police shootings, a move meant to help overcome the perception that the close relationship between prosecutors and the police made it all but impossible to win a conviction against a police officer. Thompson became one of the most vocal critics of the plan. “As the duly elected district attorney of Brooklyn,” Thompson said at the time, “I am more than able to thoroughly and fairly investigate any fatality of an unarmed civilian by a police officer.” The indictment of Liang in February seemed to underscore his point.

It also brought Gurley’s death back into the spotlight, despite officials’ pleas not to connect the dots between Gurley’s death and those of Garner and Brown. Unlike the killings of Brown and Garner, Gurley never came into direct contact with the officers. It’s unclear if Liang even realized anyone was in the stairwell. The lights in the stairwell had reportedly been out for days, and the vertical patrol is such a dangerous assignment that it’s not unusual for officers to draw their guns while making their rounds.

In a similar incident in 2004, an unarmed teenager named Timothy Stansbury was shot by Officer Richard Neri at the door to the roof of a public-housing complex in Bed-Stuy. Like Liang, Neri had been doing a vertical patrol; he later said he got spooked and only realized he’d accidentally shot and killed Stansbury when he discovered his body in a pool of blood. Hynes sought manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide charges against Neri, but the grand jury voted not to indict him. He was suspended for 30 days and lost gun privileges.

Liang never testified before the grand jury. Stephen Worth, his lawyer, says he wouldn’t allow Liang to defend himself because, unlike in the Neri case, he felt the outcome had been predetermined. “The grand-jury presentation in this case was unusually short,” he says. At the end of January, prosecutors spent a week making their case. “Typically, in a police shooting, prosecutors would take months before going into the grand jury.” Worth has accused Thompson of using Liang as a “political pawn” and said that Thompson’s decision to announce the indictment so soon after the Garner decision made his client “part of the Zeitgeist and the mood that’s out there. It poisons the jury pool and also puts pressure on the judge.” (Worth and Thompson have a long history. Worth represented one of the officers in the Louima trial, and he’s also counsel for the two other police officers whom Thompson indicted.)

After seeing the stairwell where Gurley died, Thompson told me he was reminded of the Wagner Houses where he grew up. When he was a kid, the stairs were an extension of home. “You know how many times I would run up the steps to go to a neighbor’s house for my mother,” Thompson said. “Or going to see a friend. We really did not take the elevators. We walked down the steps.”

A trial date has yet to be set. Should the case go to court, it will be difficult for prosecutors to prove Liang’s reckless act was a criminal one. “So many things in a bad way had to line up for Mr. Gurley to have died,” Thompson said. No matter the outcome of the trial, though, “there are no winners here.” Except, perhaps, Ken Thompson.

*This article appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Ken Thompson’s Mission for Racial Equality