Guest Op-Ed: Ken Thompson’s remarkable legacy

Like all of us, I was deeply saddened to learn of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s passing. He was a tremendous individual, exemplary district attorney and family man. A pioneer as the first African American Brooklyn DA and a fighter for racial justice, with a strong commitment and dedication to criminal justice reform, Ken will be greatly missed by all of us in this city.

Among several notable accomplishments, perhaps the most important part of his legacy was the amplification and expansion of the Conviction Review Unit. Inherited from former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, Ken would make it his mission to create a prominent and national model for all conviction review units to follow across the country.

Before serving 19 years in elected office as state senator and city councilmember, I served 11 years as a prosecutor in Queens and handled hundreds of cases in that period. As a prosecutor, I always tried to stay true to the words of my mentors to remain steadfast in “seeking justice rather than seeking convictions at all costs.” That is and should be the ethical mandate of all prosecutors.

Yet DA Thompson took it a step further and showed that exonerations of wrongful convictions are just as important. This showed that the scales of law could be balanced and that his office would seek truth and not accept “guilty” as the final straw if evidence showed otherwise. It showed that the district attorney’s office could analyze its own work objectively to ensure justice was secured honestly whether it is in the past or in the current work of the office.

So far, the Brooklyn DA has exonerated 21 wrongfully convicted individuals. Ken’s Conviction Review Unit has gone the extra mile and beyond. Rather than focus primarily on DNA as case closed evidence, the DA has looked through the entire body of evidence in a case file’s history.

The DA’s office pored through files upon files, riddled through witness testimonies, unlocked evidence that had not been viewed in years. In one case it was revealed by the Brooklyn DA’s CRU Unit that an individual’s purchase receipt, confiscated at the time of his arrest from his wallet, placed him at a different location, out-of-state, rather than at the scene of the crime, thereby confirming his valid alibi. Alarmingly, the purchase receipt had egregiously been ignored and not submitted by the prosecution.

Our goal should be that the Conviction Review Unit that DA Thompson constructed remains the best this nation has to offer. As DA Thompson once said, “Wrongful convictions not only destroy the lives of the wrongfully convicted and their families, but they also undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

Ken and I have always been on the same page here and I hope to continue to honor and uphold the integrity of our city’s criminal justice system now and in my future years of public service.
Vincent Gentile represents the 43rd Council District.

Vincent Gentile represents the 43rd Council District.

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