By Reuven Blau (NY Daily News)
January 6, 2015
In his first year in office, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson gained national acclaim. He cleared a historic number of homicide convictions and ignored minor pot cases, but disappointed advocates for Jewish child-sex abuse victims.
“Ken Thompson has exonerated more innocent people (than any other prosecutor) in New York history,” said famed civil rights attorney Ron Kuby. “And that’s solidly to his credit. But there is much more to do.”
Kuby and other observers offered plaudits when asked to assess the top prosecutor’s overall performance in his rookie year, though there were several areas of concern.
Thompson, during a lengthy interview, repeatedly touted the 11 convictions he cleared — all men who spent years locked up for murders they did not commit.
“Correcting miscarriages of justice is very important,” Thompson, 48, told the Daily News. “Having men in prison for murders they did not commit is not justice.”
The office’s lauded review unit is currently looking over 100 cases, and they continue to surface. Some are still behind bars; others — like one man who attempted to visit Thompson’s office to plead his case — have been released, but want their name cleared.
Thompson created the unit, which costs an estimated $1.1 million a year and includes 10 prosecutors.
The investigators now share any new evidence they find with defense lawyers, which wasn’t originally the case. Thompson changed the protocols after defenders complained.
“The conviction review process continues to evolve,” said Kuby, who noted that the final reports remain private.
Thompson has sometimes struggled to find the right staffers during the early going.
Last month, he fired politically connected Jewish liaison Wolf Sender and had security escort him out. Thompson also demoted his second-in-command, Mark Feldman, to a smaller unit, and parted ways with his top press staffer, Sheila Stainback.
Feldman is now in charge of a “crime strategies” unit designed in part to help reduce gun violence, Thompson said.
“Sometimes you have to move folks around but we are all part of the same team,” he added.
Thompson said it took his office a little longer to get moving because he was bogged down with a second fight against Hynes after he changed parties and ran as a Republican.
“We have been engaged in triage,” Thompson said. “The hole was deeper than I realized.”
He has taken a fair deal of criticism for his handling of several high-profile criminal cases in the Hasidic Jewish community.
Convicted child molester Baruch Lebovitz was sentenced to two years in prison and released in September, after serving less than three months, due to time served and good behavior.
When Thompson was campaigning, he specifically asked incumbent DA Charles Hynes to wait until after the election to act on the long-pending case.
Now, he says the he achieved the best outcome possible, given the case’s bungled history before he took office.
“The cases that they criticize me on … many of them already existed before I became DA,” Thompson said on Monday.
In March, Thompson dropped a controversial bribery charge against Samuel Kellner, the father of one of the boys Lebovitz allegedly molested, citing fabricated evidence that he tried to get the Lebovitz family to pay him off.
Abuse advocates hailed the move but have also urged Thompson to investigate and criminally charge the Hasidic men who allegedly framed Kellner.
Those two cases have had a chilling effect on any new allegations being brought from within the community, advocates said.
Thompson declined to discuss any pending investigations.
“I’m a friend of the Jewish community,” he said. “I’m determined to protect all the children.”
Advocates are furious he has taken thousands in campaign donations from bigwigs in the Satmar community, a Hasidic sect that strenuously opposes any secular oversight into sexual molestation accusations. The donations were first reported in The Jewish Week.
“Our frustration is that we feel he needs to talk to the victims and the community and not to those politically affiliated,” Miriam Nockenofsky, an advocate for Jewish sex abuse victims. “Why is that he’s only talking to the leaders? It’s not right.”
Thompson maintains he's not playing favorites.
"I can't make everyone happy," Thompson said. "Some of them are saying some not so nice things about me. They don't know me.”
By all accounts, Thompson has worked hard to keep his campaign promises. He quickly implemented a policy to ignore low-level marijuana possession arrests, leading to 925 dismissals. In November, the de Blasio administration announced a similar citywide policy.
“We were first,” Thompson said. “We showed the city, and country, that we had a reasonable policy.”
During the campaign, Thompson slammed Hynes for employing Angel Dipietro, an assistant district attorney who also served as a witness in a high-profile Brooklyn murder case after she brought a friend, Mark Fisher, to a Brooklyn house party where he was killed hours later.
DiPietro’s father, James, is a prominent criminal defense attorney and a staunch Hynes supporter who made several campaign donations.
“Another day, another Hynes scandal,” said Thompson in 2013. “The large campaign donation by Ms. DiPietro’s father after DA Hynes hired Ms. DiPietro raises serious questions.”
But DiPietro still works in the office.