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Brooklyn District Attorney Dies After Battle With Cancer

By  Murray Weiss Jeff Mays and Michael P. Ventura | October 9, 2016 8:02pm | Updated on October 10, 2016 12:11pm

 Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson.
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DNAinfo/Shayna Jacobs

BROOKLYN — Brooklyn's District Attorney Ken Thompson died Sunday night after battling cancer. He was 50 years old.

"With a heavy heart, the family of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced that the District Attorney passed away today after a hard fought battle with cancer," a statement from Thompson's office read.

He died at 6:30 p.m., sources said.

Thompson had announced on Tuesday that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was temporarily stepping aside to receive treatment. He did not disclose what type of cancer he had, but he vowed to return to the job.

"As a man of intense faith, I intend to fight and win the battle against this disease,” Thompson said in a statement last week. “I humbly seek your sincere prayers as I confront this challenge and respectfully ask that you honor my family’s need and wish for privacy during this time.”

He was first diagnosed back in May, sources said, and was away from the office receiving treatment at length during August and September.

Only a handful of family and close associated knew how ill he was, sources said.

The district attorney's office said Thompson died at Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital with his family around him.

He is survived by his wife, Lu-Shawn Thompson, his two children, Kennedy and Kenny, his mother, father, brother and sister, the district attorney's office said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered that flags be lowered to half staff to honor Thompson.

“I am profoundly saddened to learn of the sudden passing of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson after a battle with cancer," Cuomo said in a statement. "Ken was a dedicated public servant who embodied the highest principles of the law, and his grand presence will be sorely missed."

Many other local politicians also issued statements offering condolences.

"This tragedy is a loss for Ken Thompson's family and the city and I'm deeply saddened by this sudden news," said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

"Ken Thompson was an outstanding public servant who dedicated his life to the fight for justice," said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

"District Attorney Ken Thompson was committed to bringing equity to Brooklyn, and to making our borough safer and fairer for all," said Public Advocate Letitia James.

"The thoughts and prayers of our entire city are with District Attorney Ken Thompson, his family and his loved ones tonight," said de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray. "With a life and promise cut far too short, our city was blessed with but a glimpse of Ken's unwavering commitment to justice and his unrivaled pursuit of a more fair system for all those he served."

Thompson was elected in 2013, becoming Brooklyn's first black DA after defeating 20-year incumbent Charles Hynes.

Thompson's chief assistant, Eric Gonzalez, was named acting district attorney when Thompson stepped aside.

"He was a giant among those seeking to reform the criminal justice system and we are all privileged to have worked under his transformative leadership these past three years," Gonzalez said of Thompson.

Cuomo has the authority to pick an interim district attorney until the next general election, which would take place in November 2017. When Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice was elected to Congress in 2014, for example, Cuomo left her deputy, Madeline Singas, in place. Singas was elected as district attorney in 2016.

Before becoming district attorney, Thompson worked as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn where he was part of a team that prosecuted NYPD Officer Justin Volpe in the 1997 beating and torture of Abner Louima. 

Thompson later represented housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo in a civil lawsuit against former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly sexually assaulting her in a Midtown hotel. 

Shortly after he took office, Thompson implemented a new policy where his office would not prosecute low-level marijuana offenses in an effort to keep young people out of the criminal justice system. The change from Thompson's office came months before the city announced it would not arrest people found with small amounts of marijuana.

He also pushed his Conviction Review Unit to examine old cases to overturn wrongful convictions. Thompson's unit was one of 24 active in the country in 2015, according to the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School. The group described Brooklyn's conviction review efforts as among the "most successful" in the country.

Around the country, conviction integrity units exonerated 12 people for homicides in 2015. Half of those exonerations came from Thompson's office, including three men convicted of a deadly 1980 Park Slope arson.

Twenty-one people saw their convictions overturned, the DA's office said. Thompson said that wrongful convictions “undermine the integrity of our criminal justice system.”

Both initiatives earned Thompson praise as the nation grappled with unrest due to the troubled relationship between police and communities of color as well as sentencing disparities in the criminal justice system.

Comptroller Scott Stringer said Thompson "championed the cause of equal justice for all" and was also "a leader in the battle to bring justice — however long deferred — to people who were unjustly imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit."

Thompson also prosecuted NYPD Officer Peter Liang in the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley as the death of unarmed civilians, mostly black men, at the hands of police was the focus of intense protests around the country. Liang was convicted of manslaughter in the case, but Thompson recommended he receive a sentence of no jail time.

Thompson was criticized for the decision by police reform advocates and Gurley's family, but he said there was "no evidence" that the officer "intended to kill or injure" Gurley.

"When Mr. Liang went into that building that night, he did so as part of his job and to keep the people of Brooklyn and our city safe," Thompson said.

Thompson was born in New York City and his mother, Clara Thompson, was one of the first women to patrol the streets as a NYPD officer.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been made, his office said.