EAST NEW YORK — The U.S. Attorney General, the governor and scores of the city's top legal officials joined family and well-wishers Saturday to remember late-Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson and honor his life's work of criminal justice reform.
"Justice was real for Ken, it was not an abstract principle," Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who worked with Thompson to prosecute police officers of Brooklyn's 70th Precinct who tortured Abner Louima in 1997. "It was about making the promise of this country real for everyone."
Thompson, who served just three years as district attorney, died on Oct. 9 at the age of 50 after a six month battle with cancer. His death came as a shock to the city after his office announced he was stepping aside to receive treatment just days before.
All of those who spoke at his 5-hour funeral, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Federal Judge Sterling Johonson, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Jeremy Travis, the president of his alma mater John Jay School of Criminal Justice, told of carrying on his legacy of working for a fair legal system.
"Most prosecutors work to prove guilt," Cuomo said. "Ken's office also worked to prove innocence."
Thompson was also a child of the city. Born in Harlem, he was raised by his mother, one of the NYPD's first female patrol officers, in Co-op City. He graduated at the top of his class at John Jay and went on to graduate from New York University law school in 1992.
He was immediately drawn to public service, and was part of a Treasury Department investigation into the botched 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas.
He went on to be an assistant U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, where he helped Lynch prosecute the police officers who attacked Louima.
His advocacy also help prompt the U.S. Justice Department to reinvestigate the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.
"He was an avid reader and a student of history," Jeffries said. "The brother was reading so much I thought he had a Barnes & Noble in his basement."
One of his most well known cases of his private practice came just before he decided to run for office.
He represented Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid who accused the International Monetary Fund president Dominic Straus-Khan of sexual assault in 2011.
Reverend A.R. Bernard, senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center where Thompson was parishioner for 20 years, said he decided to run for office after charges were dropped against Strauss-Khan.
He took on entrenched incumbent District Attorney Charles Hynes, who had suffered a series of scandals over wrongful convictions and his handling of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Thompson had a reputation as a stern taskmaster in his role as DA, but the man remembered on Saturday was a practical joker, a loving father and a deeply committed public servant.
"He never let political considerations get in the way of doing what's right," said Harvard Law professor Ronald Sullivan, who agreed to commute from Cambridge to be part of Thompson's Conviction Review Unit. "If I had a dollar for every time he said 'I may not get reelected, but we're going to do what's right.'"
David McCallum, who spent 29 years in prison, was cleared of murder after his case was reviewed by Thompson's office. He was one of 21 people who were freed or saw their convictions set aside under Thompson's tenure.
He spoke of the support he got from the late DA after his state and federal appeals were exhausted.
"Mr. Thompson not only gave me my freedom, but [he] gave me my 5-year-old daughter," McCallum said.
In his eulogy for his predecessor, acting-Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, credited Thompson with "re-building the brand" of the county's prosecutor's office.
"He knew we couldn't incarcerate our way to safety," he said.
He vowed to continue Thompson's work.
"Legacy is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see grow," he said. "We pledge to nurture the garden you have planted."
After the ceremony, his casket was taken for a final trip past the district attorney's office and the courthouse and then to Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx where he was buried.