The criminal-justice reforms that must be made if this is ever to be a nation “with liberty and justice for all” will require the election of a new generation of prosecutors who understand the need to upset a broken and dysfunctional status quo.
Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson, the chief prosecutor for the New York City borough of Brooklyn, set out to be such a prosecutor. After his election in 2013, observed The New York Times, he “earned a reputation in office as one of the country’s most progressive district attorneys.”
Tragically, Thompson’s tenure ended Sunday, when he lost a battle with cancer at age 50. The district attorney’s chief assistant, Eric Gonzalez, hailed his colleague as a visionary reformer who “transformed the office into a model urban prosecutor’s office with a mandate to do justice and treat everyone and every case fairly and with the utmost integrity.”
That was precisely what Thompson had promised to do during the 2013 campaign that led to his election to one of the most powerful law enforcement positions in the United States.
Across the United States, voters choose roughly 2,400 prosecutors in partisan and nonpartisan elections. The nation’s states attorneys, county prosecutors, and district attorneys are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male; only a handful of them identify in any serious sense as criminal-justice reformers.
When Thompson mounted his bid in Brooklyn, he made it clear that he wanted to be a different kind of district attorney.
Thompson ran that race as a civil-rights advocate with a reputation for battling injustice. That reputation was established when, as federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, he prosecuted former New York City police officer Justin Volpe for the 1997 beating and torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
In addition to fighting contemporary injustices, Thompson sought to address the injustices of the past. With his client Louisiana filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, and a coalition of religious leaders, the lawyer worked with New York Senator Charles Schumer and New York Congresswoman Yvette Clarke to convince the United States Department of Justice to reopen the investigation into the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.