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Judge Block uses reality-fiction to discuss issues in criminal justice system

‘Race to Judgment’ Based on the Life of Late DA Ken Thompson

November 16, 2017 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Block, of the Eastern District of New York, recently authored his second book “Race to Judgment,” which is a reality-fiction book based on the life of the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese
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Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Frederic Block bought his father a paint-by-numbers set when he was 60 years old, and he became quite a talented painter by age 61, using oil paints to create replicas of famous Paris street scenes.

Thinking back on that inspired Block, now 83, to write his first nonfiction book, “Race to Judgment.”

“I realized that I didn’t know if I could write because writing a legal opinion is not the same,” Block explained. “Even after writing the first book, I didn’t know if I could do it because it’s a whole different way of writing.”

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His first book, “Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge,” is a memoir about his life on the bench.

Block drew inspiration for “Race to Judgment” from both the cases he handled during his career and from the career of the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson.

“I was fascinated by the fact that Ken Thompson came from nowhere to beat Joe Hynes,” Block explained. “You don’t just beat an incumbent DA. He was in the position for 25 years. That was extraordinary. He was a civil rights lawyer and had been a U.S. Attorney. He tried his first case before me in the mid ’90s.

“It’s a story of wrongful convictions, and he rides that to unseat Hynes,” Block continued. “Since then, you may know there is a special committee that is functioning and have now uncovered 23 other cases.”

The book is set during Crown Heights riots in the mid ’90s, one of the biggest racial riots in the city’s history. Block based the details on four of the most interesting cases in his and Thompson’s career.

The protagonist, who is also based off of both Block himself and Thompson, is a civil rights attorney handling a murder case. Block uses his Ken Williams character, who plays jazz piano and writes country music songs, as a conduit to discuss hot topics in the criminal justice system.

“What I really like about the book is that I get to speak about issues through the protagonist and the story — stop and frisk, Black Lives Matter, and, of course, wrongful convictions,” he said.

Block explained that he wasn’t afraid to hold anything back in the book, but was a bit concerned with how people from the Jewish community might react to his depiction of how Hasidic men treat their wives. Ultimately, he decided that it was an issue that he felt passionate about and felt necessary to include.

“I’ve had some cases where these women are treated like dirt,” said Block. “The Hasidim are the fabric of this community, 200,000 of them here in Brooklyn and they do a lot of good deeds, but they don’t treat their women too well. I’m sure that some will not be happy when they read the book, and I’m sensitive to that. But sometimes you have to just do these things because you feel strongly about it and you can’t be too skittish.”

Thompson died in October 2016, just after Block completed the book. Through Thompson’s law partner Douglas Wigdor he got word to Thompson just before his death that he would be the subject of the book and that Block would dedicate it to him. Thompson said to Wigdor, “Thank the judge for that.” He died that same week.

Of “Disrobed,” Block said that he was happy with that book, but felt like it never reached a broader audience who might have been too intimidated to read a nonfiction book written by a judge. That helped him, he said, to decide to write a fictional novel this time around.

Block is already at work on the sequel to “Race to Judgment,” which is tentatively titled “Radical Justice.” In it Block intends to explore issues involving the federal court and terrorism trials, which the Eastern District has become famous for.


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