A Guardian Angel Prosecutor

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At a time when too much of the election campaign celebrated the lack of morality in words and deeds, where truth became marginalized, when the common good seemed to become insignificant, it’s time to celebrate the good.

I'm talking about the exemplary life and career of a Brooklyn District Attorney. In October he succumbed to cancer at the age of 50 after living a life that heralds what makes this country great. It’s about competence, compassion, conviction and finally about courage. It's also about devoting one's life to what's right, without needing recognition--except maybe in one last newspaper story, so what you've done can light the way for others. In a profile based on the last interview Thompson gave, the New York Times's Yaniche Alcindor captured Ken Thompson’s humble yet remarkable legacy.

Alcindor spoke by phone with Thompson only five days before the attorney died; he had kept his illness a secret until the final days of his life and Alcindor didn't realize that Thompson hoped to sum up his legacy in this conversation with the reporter.

As a child, he had lived in public housing, raised by his single mother, a lifelong police officer. So his focus as district attorney had been to be tough on police brutality, but generally forgiving to most individual cops who made mistakes. He knew, from the inside, what police are up against when they go out into the streets every day. But he also knew how to recognize a genuine offender.

When he was elected district attorney in Kings County, he made an effort to recruit lawyers with the widest possible variety of backgrounds: economic, racial, educational. He wanted people who could empathize, who would understand the difference between someone who had strayed and the hardened criminal. "It's who I am hiring: diverse, diverse people . . . who are being given a chance to become prosecutors in Brooklyn."

The reporter talked with Thompson about Peter Liang, an officer who shot Akai Gurley, a black man, in a public housing facility like the one from Thompson's own childhood. Liang got only probation and community service as punishment for his manslaughter conviction. It may seem like a light sentence, but Thompson drew condemnation from many in the police force simply for putting Liang on trial. Meanwhile, the victim's family were furious that he'd let the officer do community service as restitution for his mistake. In some instances, there's no way to win for a prosecutor.

Here's where the Times story got interesting. Alcindor writes: "Mr. Thompson’s spokeswoman, listening to the call, interjected, trying to steer him away from the subject, but he rebuffed her."

Thompson continued to explain why the case mattered to him. He wanted justice, and he believed police who kill or torment a suspect in a way that is genuinely criminal should be prosecuted. Working with Loretta Lynch, he convicted Justin Volpe in 1997 after the officer was charged with using a broomstick to sodomize a Haitian immigrant while the man was in custody. Volpe is still in prison, serving a 30-year sentence. This was clearly a hate crime.

He convicted an officer who knocked out a teen's teeth. He put another officer away for three months over the "blatant act of police brutality" when the officer stomped on a man's head. Yet he chose not to waste taxpayer dollars on trials for low-level marijuana arrests, helped youth avoid criminal records for minor crimes, and encouraged New Yorkers to avoid trial by settling petty crime warrants out of court. He created a unit to vacate wrongful convictions. He told the Times reporter: “In two years and eight months, we have vacated 21 wrongful convictions. I don’t know any D.A. who is doing it like that.” All of the defendants were minorities.

One of them was Paul Gatling, an 81-year-old prisoner who had been convicted in 1964. He was not only set free, but was given the ability to vote again. The man sent Thompson a note: "Done wrong in 1964. Done right in May 2016."

The note hung on the wall of Thompson's office, with a picture of Gatling crying with gratitude, holding his cane. Thompson said, "I think that’s what prosecutors should do”

It’s the kind of role model that can help point to our true north, our sense of fairness and our humanity. Unquestionably, his was a life well-lived, an example to all of us.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.

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