‘They were given new life’: Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson remembered by people he helped free from wrongful convictions

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BROOKLYN -- He lived for only 50 years, the last three of which he was Brooklyn District Attorney. But in those three years, Ken Thompson played a major role in ensuring that nearly two dozen wrongfully convicted people gained years of life they very well may not have had without his efforts.

Many of them are now responding with sadness and gratefulness in the wake of Thompson's untimely death on Sunday, but they also express hope and optimism that his legacy will live on.

Derrick Hamilton, 51, who'd spent 20 years in prison and four more years on parole for a homicide he didn't commit, spoke from very personal experience about what Thompson had done for him.

"If it had not been for him, I'd still be convicted," Hamilton told PIX11 News.

He was among 21 people in the last three years who who'd been convicted of crimes they didn't commit, and were exonerated, with Thompson's help. It came, however, after the defendants cumulatively spent more than 300 years in prison, for no good reason.

When Thompson won election as the first black Brooklyn DA ever, he set up the Conviction Review Unit, a group of lawyers and other legal experts who analyzed convictions by Thompson's predecessor, Charles Hynes, to see if injustice was done.

According to Hamilton, the exoneree, Thompson's directive was to look at each case in a clear eyed, objective manner and decide if it had been properly prosecuted.

Because of that, Hamilton said, "I was exonerated because of Ken Thompson."

Barry Scheck, one of the greatest advocates for wrongfully incarcerated inmates, founder The Innocence Project. It's helped 344 imprisoned people prove their innocence, and has worked with Thompson to do so.

Scheck called him an innovator.

"He really established the way that conviction review, or convention integrity, as we call it, should be done,"said Scheck. "The best practices that Ken put forward, I think are going to be adopted all across the country."

While Scheck works with hundreds of people who are wrongfully behind bars, many of those people, like Everton Wagstaffe, who was imprisoned for 23 years, say they know quite personally that Thompson was a godsend.

"As a result of this man, Ken Thompson, these people don't have to fight anymore" said Wagstaffe, who got released two years ago, referring to the many exonerees whose cases Thompson looked into. "They were given a new life. So yes, that man had done a lot, and I hope whoever takes over will continue his legacy."

That's been a theme among the many people who spoke with PIX11 News for this story, who have worked with Ken Thompson: a hope that his work will continue, as a testament to his life.

"I hope his legacy lives on," said Hamilton. "I think we should get a statue in Brooklyn, the Ken Thompson statue. Because he deserves it."

Many other advocates for the wrongly convicted and imprisoned agree, but quite a few had the same message as Lonnie Soury, a public relations company founder who represents many exoneree organizations and their families.

He told PIX11 News that the strongest way to honor Thompson's life and mission would be to ensure that there's adequate funding for the Brooklyn conviction review unit and to establish similar units statewide and beyond.