Kenneth Thompson, Brooklyn, New York’s first African-American district attorney, died of cancer days after taking a leave of absence from his office. He was 50 years old.
The New York Times reports that Thompson died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan with his family at his side.
Thompson will be remembered as a progressive prosecutor, creating a unit in the office which reviewed (and overturned) questionable convictions and established a policy of not prosecuting most minor marijuana arrests—many young people of color’s entrée into the criminal justice system.
As a federal prosecutor, Thompson successfully jailed a police officer in one of New York City’s most notorious police brutality cases, that of Abner Louima, and NBC News reports that his family said he also worked with the U.S. Congress to get the Justice Department to reinvestigate the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
On Tuesday, Thompson released a statement saying he had cancer and that he would be taking a leave of absence. Sunday night, his office announced his death.
The native New Yorker had been head of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office since January 2014, when he defeated 20 year incumbent Charles Hynes.
The Times reports:
Born and raised in New York City, Mr. Thompson was the son of a police officer and lived in public housing in Harlem before moving to Co-Op City, a housing development in the Bronx. He attended the city’s public schools and applied to the Police Department, as his mother had, before choosing instead to attend the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. After his graduation, he obtained a law degree from the New York University School of Law.
On the advice of one of his law professors, Ronald K. Noble, a onetime Treasury Department official and the secretary general of Interpol, Mr. Thompson sought and found a position as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. In 1997, he was assigned the prestigious task of making the opening statement at the trial of Justin Volpe, a former police officer who eventually pleaded guilty to torturing a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, with a broken broomstick in the bathroom of a Brooklyn station house.
After leaving government service, Mr. Thompson went into private practice. His most prominent case was representing an African-born hotel housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo, who accused the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping her in a Manhattan hotel room in 2011.
“The thoughts and prayers of our entire city are with District Attorney Ken Thompson, his family and his loved ones tonight,” Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, said in a statement on Sunday. “With a life and promise cut far too short, our city was blessed with but a glimpse of Ken’s unwavering commitment to justice and his unrivaled pursuit of a more fair system for all those he served.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo had these words: “A lifelong New Yorker, Ken was known as an effective, aggressive civil rights leader — and a national voice for criminal justice reform.”
Thompson is survived by his wife of 17 years, Lu-Shawn Thompson; his children, Kennedy and Kenny; his parents, brother and sister.