Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. “Ken” Thompson, the first African-American to hold the office and whose career included internationally high-profile cases in private practice as well as a stint as federal prosecutor, died Sunday after a battle with cancer, just days after announcing he would be undergoing treatment. He was 50. He was also the first to defeat a sitting Brooklyn district attorney since 1911.
Thompson’s family said he died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
“Ken was a dedicated public servant who embodied the highest principles of the law, and his grand presence will be sorely missed,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He said flags would be flown at half-staff on Monday in tribute to Thompson.
“With a life and promise cut far too short, our city was blessed with but a glimpse of Ken’s unwavering commitment to justice,” Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray said in a statement.
When he revealed his illness Tuesday, Thompson bravely vowed to beat it.
“As a man of intense faith, I intend to fight and win the battle against this disease,” he said.
Thompson appointed his chief assistant, Eric Gonzalez, to lead the office in his place. Gonzalez will likely serve as acting DA until next year’s election, sources said.
In September 2013 Thompson defeated incumbent Charles J. Hynes, who had served as district attorney since 1990, in the Democratic primary for Brooklyn District Attorney, where he ran as a critic of the NYPD.
Thompson ordered his office not to prosecute low-level marijuana arrests, in part to devote more resources to fight gun crimes, rape and domestic violence. He said he also wanted to spare younger New Yorkers from “the burden of a criminal record.”
He also moved to vacate or supported the dismissal of convictions of 21 people wrongly convicted of murder and other offenses.
Liang was convicted of manslaughter — a charge that could have resulted in a 15-year sentence. But Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun controversially reduced the charge to criminally negligent homicide after Thompson asked the judge not to send him to prison.
Thompson grew up in the Bronx’s Co-op City. His mother, Clara, was one of the city’s first female NYPD officers to patrol the streets. After graduating from New York City public schools, Thompson attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he graduated magna cum laude.
His mother, Clara Thompson, was one of the first female police officers in the New York City Police Department to patrol the streets in 1973. Kenneth attended New York University School of Law where he earned the Arthur T. Vanderbilt Medal for contributions to the law school community
Thompson began as an attorney in the United States Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., where he served as Special Assistant to former Treasury Department Undersecretary for Enforcement and now the Secretary General of Interpol, Ronald K. Noble.
In 1995 Thompson accepted a position as an Assistant U.S. Attorney under Zachary W. Carter, in the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn. During his tenure he worked with Loretta Lynch as a member of the federal prosecution team in the 1997 trial of former New York City Police Department Officer Justin Volpe, who was accused of sodomizing Abner Louima inside a bathroom at the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn; the trial (at which Thompson delivered the opening remarks) resulted in a watershed conviction, with Volpe ultimately changing his plea from ‘not guilty’ to ‘guilty’.
After his time as a federal prosecutor, Thompson went into private practice, first at the international law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and then at his own law firm, Thompson Wigdor LLP, which he co-founded in 2003.
Thompson worked with Senator Charles E. Schumer, Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, other elected officials, and members of the clergy to convince the United States Department of Justice to reopen the investigation into the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
In 2011, he represented Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel housekeeper who claimed that she was sexually assaulted in a Manhattan hotel room by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund. Her case was dropped by public prosecutors, who stated they were not convinced of his culpability beyond a reasonable doubt due to serious issues in Diallo’s credibility and inconclusive physical evidence, and therefore could not ask a jury to believe it.
Thompson is survived by his wife of 17 years; his two children, Kennedy and Kenny; his mother; father; brother, and sister. Funeral arrangements had yet to be made public Sunday night. With Jared McCallister.
“As law enforcement it’s a lost,” Blacks In Law Enforcement, NY Representative Damon K. Jones said when he heard the news. “Our condolences to the Thompson family.”