BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Just days after taking a leave of absence to fight cancer, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson died Sunday at a New York hospital.
Thompson, 50, had been the borough's first black DA, a position he held since winning a 2013 election against 20-year incumbent Chuck Hynes. Family surrounded Thompson, a father of two, at the time of his death. He had been hospitalized at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
The locally educated prosecutor's legacy includes a Conviction Review Unit that has flagged the convictions of 21 people who were wrongfully convicted of murder and other offenses.
In the last three years, the unit has moved to vacate or support the dismissal of these 21 convictions. Most of the exonerated people in these cases are black.
One of Thompson's first moves upon his election was to implement a groundbreaking policy of not prosecuting low-level marijuana-possession arrests.
Thompson had been a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York before his election, working in the office of the woman who would become the nation's first black, female attorney general.
Reacting to the news of Thompson's death Monday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called Thompson "a tireless defender of equal rights and a steadfast champion of equal justice."
"Through our work together as federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York, I came to know Ken as a devoted public servant," Lynch continued. "That determination was at the center of all his cases, including the prosecution of police officers for the assault upon Abner Louima, a case I had the privilege of working on alongside him. Ken leaves behind a proud legacy of integrity, selflessness and excellence. Our nation is a stronger and safer place because of his dedicated service. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. He will be truly missed."
As an assistant U.S. attorney under Lynch, Thompson had helped in the successful prosecution of former New York City police officer Justin Volpe, who in 1997 sodomized Haitian immigrant Abner Louia with a broomstick inside a police precinct bathroom. Volpe was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
In April 2015, Thompson had himself congratulated Lynch for her confirmation to national office.
Thompson's death came days after the prosecutor took a leave of absence from his office last week, announcing a "recent" cancer diagnosis.
Eric Gonzalez, the chief assistant DA who has been leading the office since that time, called Thompson "a giant among those seeking to reform the criminal justice system."
In just three short years as Brooklyn DA, Thompson gave his office "a mandate to do justice and treat everyone and every case fairly and with utmost integrity," Gonzalez added. "Among his many initiatives, he created a model for correcting wrongful convictions, instituted a marijuana policy that would later be replicated citywide and started a summons forgiveness program that would also be instituted in several other jurisdictions. Our sincere prayers are with his wife, children and loved ones. May he rest in peace, knowing that he has made Brooklyn and New York City a better place."
In addition to freeing the wrongfully incarcerated, Thompson made headlines for successfully prosecuting Peter Liang, a rookie NYPD officer who killed the unarmed Akai Gurley after opening fire in an unlit stairwell of East New York's Pink Houses project.
Kings County officials also touted Thompson's service as a special assistant to the U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for Enforcement in Washington, D.C., and in the General Counsel's Office at the Treasury.
After the 1993 raid on David Koresh and the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, Thompson was part of an investigation team convened by President Bill Clinton.
Another famous case on which Thompson worked was the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Thompson lobbied members of Congress and the clergy to have the U.S. Department of Justice reinvestigate that case.
Thompson joined a private practice in between his federal and local prosecution stints.
He also started his own firm. One of Thompson's clients from private practice, according to a report from the Associated Press, was Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid who in 2011 accused former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault.
A New Yorker born and raised, Thompson attended New York City public schools and graduated magna cum laude from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. At New York University Law School, Thompson was awarded the Arthur T. Vanderbilt Medal.
The prosecutor's mother, Clara Thompson, had been one of the city's first female police officers to patrol the streets in 1973.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called the announcement of Thompson's death devastating.
"In less than three years as District Attorney, Ken had an indelible impact on Brooklyn, our city, and our criminal justice system," Schneiderman said in a statement. "Ken practiced law with a sense of fairness and respect for everyone in the courtroom and cared deeply and fought hard to advance the cause of civil rights. As an elected official, Ken embodied the highest ideals of public service, always doing what he believed was right, not just what was popular. Ken Thompson's time in public office will shine as an example to those of us in law enforcement for years to come. My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this very difficult time."