EXCLUSIVE: Thompson reflects on his first year as Brooklyn DA
In 2014, Kenneth Thompson was sworn in as Brooklyn’s first African-American district attorney. One year into his term, Thompson reflects on the accomplishments and challenges of the office, the push for criminal justice reform and the future of Brooklyn’s criminal justice system.
When Thompson entered the Brooklyn DA’s Office, he was faced with the daunting task of reviewing close to 100 wrongful conviction claims of Brooklyn defendants in prison for crimes they say they did not commit.
Brooklyn’s Conviction Integrity Unit was established in 2011 by Thompson’s predecessor, Charles Hynes. When Thompson took office in 2014, he increased the number of assigned prosecutors to the unit from two to ten and raised the annual budget to $1.1 million. Thompson’s unit–renamed the Conviction Review Unit–has cleared 11 men of wrongful convictions.
“Men were wrongfully convicted right here in Brooklyn and sentenced — given long prison sentences. We’re now correcting those miscarriages of justice,” Thompson said. Reports of Brooklyn’s high rate of wrongful conviction exonerations have made national news. The National Registry of Exonerations commended the unit’s “impressive accomplishment” in exonerating an “unprecedented number” of wrongfully convicted defendants.
A number of the cases involved embattled former New York City Police Detective Louis Scarcella, who either served as lead investigator or played some role in the original investigation. But as Thompson noted, the crux of the problem does not lie solely with Scarcella.
“Our work goes beyond Scarcella,” said Brooklyn’s top prosecutor. “Many of the cases…involve allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and/or police misconduct, but there are other reasons for wrongful convictions,” the DA advised.
“Witnesses, some of them do not tell the truth or it can be an eyewitness problem.” Whatever the core reasons for wrongful convictions, Thompson emphasized that tainted convictions do much damage to the lives of the innocent men wrongly serving time behind bars as well as to the very criminal justice system that convicted them.
“Wrongful convictions destroy not only the lives of those that are wrongfully convicted; they do great damage to the integrity of the criminal justice system,” he said. “[When Brooklynites] come for jury duty … [they need to] have confidence that the evidence we’re presenting is based on integrity and fairness.”
In the “year of change,” as Thompson describes the start of his term, the Brooklyn DA’s Office has brought charges against four police officers for alleged acts of police misconduct and excessive force. Most recently, charges were brought against NYPD Officer Peter Liang for the accidental shooting death of unarmed black man Akai Gurley.
“When an officer crosses the line, we have to hold that officer accountable, just as we have to hold a civilian accountable,” he noted.
A spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office told the Eagle, “if you look at the past few years, our numbers are comparable,” with regard to indictments against NYPD officers for wrongdoing.
Identifying purported acts of police brutality outside of the borough as contributing “a tension over the past couple of months,” Thompson agreed with the many critics of the NYPD that Staten Island resident Eric Garner was killed after being placed in a banned chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
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