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Losing a Good Man

Bob Herbert

Several weeks ago Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson agreed to be a guest on my City University television program. A few days later his office called to say he was ill and would have to reschedule.

On Sunday, October 9, came the awful word that Ken Thompson had died – of cancer at the age of 50. It was a great loss. Thompson was a true reformer. In one of his most important initiatives, he re-examined questionable convictions secured by his predecessor, Charles Hynes. In more than 20 of those cases, wrongful convictions for murder and other serious crimes were overturned.

Jonathan Fleming was the focus of one of the cases. He was freed in April 2014 after spending nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he hadn’t committed. A telephone receipt that had been in the possession of authorities but not offered as evidence helped to corroborate Fleming’s contention – and the testimony of a number of his relatives – that he had been in Orlando, Florida, on a family vacation when the killing occurred in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

Thompson‘s Conviction Integrity Unit found case after case in which unreliable witness testimony, the withholding of exculpatory evidence, and other improper behavior resulted in innocent defendants being convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.

Antonio Yarbrough and Sharrif Wilson spent more than 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of three murders. Joel Fowler, now 26 years old, spent nearly seven years in prison for a murder he hadn’t committed. In some cases, defendants died in prison before the truth about their cases came to light.

After Fowler was exonerated in August 2014, Thompson said, “We are determined to correct miscarriages of justice whenever we find them. This is the right thing to do.”

“Some of these cases are absolutely heartbreaking,” Thompson told me the last time I spoke with him.

As important as these cases have been, Thompson’s significance as a principled and innovative prosecutor went much deeper. He was determined, whenever possible, to keep nonviolent, low-level offenders out of the criminal justice pipeline that so often leads to violent offenses and lengthy periods of incarceration. “Where alternatives are available, we should find them and use them” he said.

Among other things, he ordered his office to stop prosecuting most low-level marijuana arrests. At the same time, he was committed to finding the best ways to vigorously fight more serious crimes, while maintaining racial justice in the exercise of law enforcement, and improving relations between law enforcement officers and local communities.

“Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” he said.

I thought it was interesting that just a few days after Thompson died, a report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union showed that in the first half of this year the number of stop-and-frisk police encounters in New York City had dropped to a record low while crime in the city remained at historically low levels.

In much of our nation, the criminal justice system is broken. Relations between the police and many African-American communities are fraught, to say the least. Our prisons are still scandalously over-populated. When a black person and a white person commit an offense, the black person is more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, more likely to be sentenced to prison, and more likely to serve a longer term. It is in that context that Ken Thompson’s contributions can be seen most clearly. His sane and effective and principled approach to criminal justice is an example that is desperately needed in these very troubled times.

As the New York Times said in an editorial, “Prosecutors like Ken Thompson don’t come around very often.”