The Great Ken Thompson

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Richard Wayner Contributor
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Kenneth P. Thompson was a great man.  Ken, who may be best known publicly as the first black District Attorney for Brooklyn, NY, was only fifty years old, when he succumbed to cancer, on October 9, 2016.

Ken was also a family man, who leaves behind a loving wife and two beautiful children.  Our daughters are friends at the same middle school and my wife and I were having barbecue at his home two summers ago, when she went into labor with our fourth child.

A born and bred New Yorker raised in the Bronx, Ken was also a legal visionary, who built the nation’s leading program to overturn wrongful convictions, and he was a God-fearing man who believed in both justice and mercy.  Ken’s mother, Clara Delores Thompson, was one of the first women to patrol the streets of New York City for the NYPD in the 1970s.  Ken followed in her footsteps, but as a one of NYC’s top prosecutors, who never shied away from difficult cases.

One of his last cases was the case of the rookie NYPD officer, Peter Liang, who shot an unarmed black youth, Akai Gurley, in a NYC public housing project.  Officer Liang claimed it was a mistake in a darkened stairwell, but the innocent young man, who had done nothing wrong but to be standing in that stairwell, was still dead.

First, Ken was criticized by conservative media outlets and members of the NYPD, because he prosecuted one of their own.  Staying true to his principles, Ken won the case and the Officer Liang was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and lost his career as a NYPD officer.  This was justice.

Then, Ken faced sever scrutiny from liberal media outlets and some members of the black community, because he did not recommend jail time for Officer Liang.  Still staying true to his principles, Ken recommended (and the presiding judge confirmed) house arrest, probation and community service.  This was mercy.

As Ken, in his own words, explained in an op-ed to the New York Daily News on April 16, 2016:

Liang’s criminally reckless actions took the life of a young father and robbed a family and community of their loved one. However, no evidence suggested that Liang, who had an unblemished record as an officer, intended to kill or even hurt Gurley or anyone else that night.  The truth is that a number of other factors also played a role in this tragedy, including the pairing of two rookie cops and the broken lights in that dark stairwell. Liang, now a convicted felon, has forfeited his career as a police officer and must live the rest of his life with the fact that Gurley died because of his crime.

Only a few months later, Ken died and I am not sure that he, or his family, really knew if his principled approach was fully appreciated.  Both the conservative and liberal media was tough on him at the time, one running the headline, “In the Liang case, Ken Thompson was neither shrewd nor a victor.”  But Ken Thompson was not trying to be shrewd or to win.  Rather, his decisions were rooted in justice and mercy.

I don’t know if Akai Gurley’s family was at Ken’s funeral, but they should have been.  I believe that Ken gave them justice.  It would have been easy for Ken to have found a smaller battle than prosecuting an NYPD officer in Brooklyn, when not one NYPD officer was even indicted in Staten Island a few months earlier for the video-taped killing of another unarmed black man, Eric Garner.

I don’t know if Peter Liang was at Ken’s funeral, but he should have been, too.  Ken showed him mercy.  It would have been easy for Ken, with a guilty verdict in hand for second degree manslaughter, to go for the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

I do know that what Ken did must have taken incredible courage.  You may have an opinion about what Ken did, but the fact is that he did not take the easy way out, in the beginning or in the end.

As one public official said during the four hour service in Ken’s honor, Ken had a level of integrity, purpose and Solomon-like wisdom too rare in today’s leadership.  The same official concluded by saying that from now on when we refer to Ken, we should all say “the Great Ken Thompson.”  I agree.

The Great Ken Thompson, son of New York City’s finest, is a great American story.

E pluribus unum.