Guide to the 2017 Brooklyn District Attorney race
This year marks the first time since 1989 that there is no real incumbent running for district attorney in Brooklyn. There are six candidates vying for the position — Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, Anne Swern, Ama Dwimoh, Councilmember Vincent Gentile, Marc Fliedner and Patricia Gatling. Since all of the candidates are Democrats, there will be no general election and everything will be decided on Sept. 12.
The winner will manage an office of 1,200 employees and 500 attorneys. They will be in charge of hiring new employees, promoting old ones and will have a large hand in determining which crimes are charged, when to set bail, how much bail will be and when to offer alternatives to incarceration.
It has been a progressive election, with candidates — who were all former assistant district attorneys — often equally discussing which (low-level) crimes they won’t prosecute and which ones they will. Despite that, the six candidates often differ on how exactly they plan on implementing their reforms.
Gonzalez has served approximately two decades with the Brooklyn DA’s office. He served in management positions prior to Ken Thompson taking office, but became a key figure once he did and helped to lead the Wrongful Convictions Unit that overturned 23 cases. Thompson appointed Gonzalez to lead the office in his absence when the former DA could no longer work due to illness, and Gonzalez officially took over as acting DA after his death in October 2016.
Gonzalez has been endorsed by all four of the Democratic members of Congress from Brooklyn, Public Advocate Letitia James, a majority of local unions, including the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, The New York Times and the Daily News.
Gonzalez has promised to stop prosecuting minor offenses and has begun to implement bail reform. He has hired immigration attorneys to instruct ADAs to avoid unintended consequences when being charged with crimes and has called for ICE to stay out of Brooklyn’s courts. The conviction review unit has been hailed as a national model.
Gonzalez has been criticized on not doing enough on bail reform, for accepting — and then returning — money from the bail industry, for not having an independent investigator looking into wrongful convictions to hold prosecutors accountable and for playing politics with sentencing during NYPD Officer Peter Liang’s manslaughter trial.
Swern served as an ADA in Brooklyn for 33 years and was first Assistant District Attorney under DA Charles Hynes. She served as managing counsel at Brooklyn Defender Services for two years and teaches at Brooklyn Law School.
Swern often brags about her work with helping to set up the “problem-solving courts” in Brooklyn including the drug court, the mental health court, veterans court, the Red Hook Community Justice Center and the Brownsville Community Justice Center to name a few. She also regularly advocates for the Community Bail Fund and suggests that it be expanded.
Swern says she won’t prosecute broken windows offenses, is against using bail for misdemeanors and wants to see the supervised release program expanded. She often calls for charging reform, discovery reform and has called for prosecutors to be stripped of their law licenses for desecrations that have led to wrongful convictions.
The biggest criticism of Swern is that she worked so long and so closely with Hynes. While nearly all of the candidates worked for Hynes — Gentile, who endorsed Hynes, being the exception — the criticism sticks because she was first assistant DA.
Fliedner was a former assistant DA in Brooklyn and New Jersey. He ran the Civil Rights Bureau for Ken Thompson and successfully prosecuted two police officers — Officer Peter Liang, who shot and killed Akai Gurley, and Joel Edouard, who stomped on a suspect’s head while he in custody. After he left the DA’s Office, he started his own civil rights law firm.
Fliedner has taken a strong stance on bail reform and advocates for changes in the law to eliminate it. He has decided to not prosecute broken windows cases, wants more experienced attorneys handling cases from the start and wants to offer more division programs at arraignment.
Fliedner recently filed a defamation lawsuit against Gonzalez. Fliedner is also being sued by Wayne Martin for withholding evidence in a murder case. Martin served nine years in prison before he was exonerated in Sept. 2016.
Gatling worked as an assistant DA in Brooklyn for 33 years and eventually went on to head the NYC Human Rights Commission for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. During her time with the DA’s Office, she was known for helping to create a reentry program for people returning from prison that became a national model.
Gatling has criticized the system as being set up to “oppress black and brown people.” She has promised to establish a Prosecutor’s Integrity Bureau to hold accountable prosecutors involved in wrongful convictions.
Gatling spends the bulk of her time discussing discovery reform, sentencing reform and often touts school-based prevention programs targeted at kids to help lower crime.
Gatling often touts her service at the Human Rights Commission, but was removed as its head by Mayor Bill de Blasio after Public Advocate Letitia James attacked her. James accused Gatling of failing to aggressively pursue investigations. Eight groups co-signed James’ complaint including the Legal Aid Society, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Bronx Defenders.
Dwimoh was an Assistant DA and served as head of the Crimes Against Children Bureau. She became famous when she successfully prosecuted the parents of Nixzmary Brown. She currently serves as special counsel for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.
Dwimoh most often beats the drum of holding prosecutors responsible for wrongful convictions. She has proposed expanding the wrongful conviction unit and wants an independent commission on prosecutorial misconduct to review cases and recommend punishment for prosecutors found guilty of withholding evidence or violating the rules of conduct.
She also is planning to expand pretrial supervision programs and improve early case assessment to reduce the amount of people at Rikers Island. Dwimoh also suggests the use of neighborhood justice panels in dealing with broken windows crimes.
Dwimoh has often claimed to have left the DA’s Office because of disagreements with Charles Hynes, however, sources have told the Brooklyn Eagle that she was forced to resign because she was abusive to her staff and failed to show up to work consistently.
Gentile, who cannot run for re-election in the City Council due to term-limits laws, is the only one in this race who has not worked for the Brooklyn DA’s Office. He does have experience as a prosecutor as he worked in the Queens DA’s Office nearly 20 years ago.
Gentile claims that his lack of experience at the Brooklyn DA’s Office is a good thing because he has no alliances with cops or prosecutors and would, like Ken Thompson, potentially create changes within the office more easily.
He has also proposed expanding the Conviction Review Unit and has promised to change the culture of the office by introducing new ethics standards and responsibility training. He brags about the work he did as a member of City Council to decriminalize certain low-level crimes and touts expanding alternative sentencing programs.
At a recent debate, Gentile was the only candidate who said he would not commit to violating federal law to protect immigrants in Brooklyn.
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