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New York prosecutor was trailblazer on reviewing convictions

FILE - In this May 2, 2016 file photo, Paul Gatling wipes away tears as a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge exonerates him in New York. The Virginia man spent nearly a decade in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering an artist in Brooklyn in 1963. At the request of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, the judge vacated the conviction of 81-year-old Gatling for the 1963 shooting death of Lawrence Rothbort. As Brooklyn's top prosecutor, Thompson became known perhaps as much for the convictions he disavowed as the ones he got. Thompson, who died of cancer Sunday Oct. 9, 2016, during his first term, agreed to overturn 21 often decades-old convictions while reviewing more than 100 in one of the most ambitious efforts of its kind nationwide. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
October 10, 2016 - 3:56 PM

NEW YORK - In his short time as Brooklyn's top prosecutor, Kenneth Thompson became known perhaps as much for the convictions he disavowed as the ones he got.

Thompson, who died of cancer Sunday during his first term as Brooklyn's district attorney, agreed to overturn 21 convictions and re-examine more than 100 in one of the most ambitious efforts of its kind. It made him a leading voice in a national conversation about what part prosecutors can play in addressing claims of wrongful conviction.

"Ken became the role model for prosecutors all over the United States in understanding the difference between a prosecutor defending convictions and a prosecutor seeking justice," said Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, a national legal group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. "And he raised the bar pretty high."

The 50-year-old prosecutor's death came just four days after he announced his diagnosis. For now, chief Assistant District Attorney Eric Gonzalez is leading the office, though Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo may appoint someone to serve out Thompson's term. Cuomo's office said Monday it was reviewing options.

Thompson became Brooklyn's first African-American district attorney in 2014. A former federal prosecutor, he'd become known in private practice for representing a hotel maid who accused former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011 of sexual assault; Strauss-Kahn denied it, criminal charges were dismissed and a civil case was settled.

Like several other prosecutors around the country, longtime Brooklyn DA Charles "Joe" Hynes had created a special unit to review challenged convictions. But after questions about a former police detective's tactics put dozens of decades-old homicide convictions under scrutiny, Thompson successfully campaigned on pledges to do more.

Within months of taking office, he upped the number of conviction review prosecutors from three to 10 in a $1 million-a-year effort that also boasted three investigators and other staffers. He hired a Harvard Law School professor to guide the work and appointed a panel of experienced lawyers to give their outside, volunteer input. The unit's docket soon grew to more than 90 cases.

"It is our fundamental duty as prosecutors to do justice," Thompson said last year. "And that means to do what is right."

Exoneration experts said few, if any, prosecutors had tackled such a sweeping examination all at once, and fellow DAs looked to it as an example.

"Ken really, I think, led the nation in the commitment and the size of his office's efforts in investigating claims of wrongful conviction" and in combining internal and external reviewers, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.

Thompson's initiative has spurred Vance to consider changes to his own conviction review unit, begun six years ago, he said. In Chicago, Democratic state's attorney candidate Kim Foxx has pointed to Thompson's conviction review work on the campaign trail.

While Thompson's office won convictions in some high-profile cases — including a police officer's deadly shooting of an unarmed black man in a dark stairwell — his review unit freed some people who had been behind bars for decades.

Thompson also stood by about 40 other conviction after reviewing them, and his office is fighting some wrongful-conviction claims in court.

Still, one such defendant's lawyer, Glenn Garber, the founder of the Exoneration Initiative legal group, calls Thompson "a trailblazer" who "really cared about improving the criminal justice system."

So does the attorney who represents ex-Detective Louis Scarcella, who's seen nearly 60 of his cases come under review. People challenging their convictions said Scarcella fabricated confessions, manipulated witnesses and intimidated suspects; he denies any wrongdoing.

Six convictions have been reversed, but prosecutors have said they found no evidence Scarcella engaged in misconduct.

"Ken Thompson," Scarcella lawyer Alan Abramson said, "should always be remembered as a prosecutor who sought justice."

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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