BROOKLYN — The lawyer who Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson hired to unearth wrongful convictions involving the NYPD also represents the family of an alleged ISIS-inspired terrorism suspect killed by Boston police, DNAinfo New York has learned.
Ronald Sullivan Jr., the chief of Thompson’s Conviction Review Committee and a Harvard Law professor who runs the school’s Criminal Justice Institute, is the family lawyer for Usaamah Rahim who was shot and killed last week while apparently threatening police with a foot-long military knife.
Rahim, 26, who had been on the FBI's radar since 2012, allegedly made threats against police and Pamela Geller, the controversial blogger who organized a cartoon contest featuring the Prophet Muhammad.
Sullivan appeared at a press conference with Rahim's family as they questioned why police followed him without a warrant and had to shoot him. They also said they saw no signs of him getting radicalized.
Some top New York State court and law enforcement officials questioned the wisdom of Sullivan appearing with the family and said it could raise concerns about his objectivity in reviewing cases where cops and prosecutors may have wrongfully convicted someone.
Sullivan brushed aside the suggestions.
"The answer is an emphatic 'no,' it does not raise an issue, either real or perceived," Sullivan told DNAinfo.
"Mr. Thompson brought me in to New York precisely because I had a defense background," said Sullivan, who previously served as executive director of public defender services for the District of Columbia.
"He wanted people from all backgrounds to look at an issue and look fairly, and to have someone bring a critical eye to the unit, to make them think through any biases that any office might have."
Several top state court and law enforcement officials disagreed.
“Maybe he does not have a bias, but this is a matter of appearance,” one high level court official observed. “Like it or not, there are activist lawyers, and unfortunately, Mr. Sullivan’s motives can no longer avoid being questioned."
A respected veteran law enforcement official went further, saying the Rahim work was "a fundamental" conflict.
“Your agenda is supposed to be searching for the truth in the DA’s office, without any appearance to the contrary," the official said, adding that there would be an issue if the head of Thompson's unit "showed up assisting the Boston police."
But a civil liberties official, who also asked for anonymity, said Sullivan's presence with the Rahim family should be no surprise.
“Everyone knew who they were getting with Sullivan," he said. "Perhaps this highlights his background and who he is, that he is a partisan, but that’s not a new revelation, and I do not necessarily think this raises any issue.”
Sullivan was hired by Thompson in April 2014 to design and head the DA’s Conviction Review Unit to examine roughly 130 convictions, including many involving retired Brooklyn Homicide Detective Louis Scarcella.
Although Thompson was unaware Sullivan had taken the case pro-bono to help the Rahim family, his spokesperson, Lupe Todd, said Thompson "knows Sullivan to be fair" and someone always seeking justice.
“We have no doubt that his involvement with the [Boston] case will bring a sense of calm and pragmatism to the investigation,” the spokesman said.
Since the Conviction Review Unit was launched, 38 cases have been reviewed, with 13 people exonerated.
Sullivan was brought in to work with Mark Hale, a career prosecutor in the Brooklyn DA’s office, who handles the CRU’s day-to-day investigations.
He received a one-year consulting contract, paying $125,000, a source said. The contract has been extended through the end of this month, when it will be re-assessed.
According to the contract, his only work restriction is to avoid defending cases involving the Brooklyn DA's office.
"Good integrity units welcome a variety of opinions and perspectives," Sullivan concluded. "It is not to say they have a bias. It is to say that each side works together to find the just outcome."