Brooklyn DA Works To Overturn His 'Legacy Of Disgrace'

Since Kenneth Thompson became district attorney, he's been investigating a number of old cases. As he tells NPR's Scott Simon, he recently asked a judge to throw out a 30-year-old murder conviction.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Earlier this week, a man walked free from a court nearly 30 years after he'd been wrongly convicted of a murder. David McCallum was 16 years old when he was sent to prison along with William Stuckey. Both men were convicted of murder in 1986. William Stuckey died in prison, but Mr. McCallum continued to fight to clear his own name. In January, his lawyer sent a letter to the Brooklyn District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson, who'd just taken office. The DA looked into the case and decided to reopen it. And since then, he's instituted review of a number of cases from the 1980s and '90s. District attorney Kenneth Thompson joins us from our studios in New York. Mr. Thompson, thanks so much being with us.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY KENNETH THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What did you see that led you to move to reopen this case?

THOMPSON: What I saw was that there was no evidence linking David McCallum or Willie Stuckey to the abduction and to the murder of Nathan Blenner other than their confessions. And their confessions were very short and they contained false-fed facts. That led me and members of my conviction review team to conclude that the confessions were false.

SIMON: You've been quoted as saying that you inherited a legacy of disgrace when you took office.

THOMPSON: I am honored to be the district attorney of Brooklyn. But with respect to wrongful conviction cases, I have inherited a mess. I am currently investigating over 100 claims of wrongful convictions. Those numbers are staggering. And that's why I created the conviction review unit, and was able to convince a very prominent, well-respected law professor, Ron Sullivan, who's a law professor at Harvard Law School, to come down to Brooklyn and run my unit.

SIMON: How do you go to the family of a victim of the original crime and tell them that the person or persons they thought killed their loved one didn't?

THOMPSON: That was the hardest thing I had to do to. To sit down with the Blenner family and to let them know that the two defendants whom they believed for 29 years were responsible for the abduction, robbery and murder of their son and brother were wrongfully convicted was extremely difficult. And I pledged to them that I would do all I could to pursue the leads that we do have because we have leads to try to hold the people who killed him responsible.

SIMON: How does a conviction review unit go about the business of looking at so many cases?

THOMPSON: Well, when I started in January, what surprised me is that I have over 500 prosecutors in my office and only two were assigned to review these wrongful conviction claims. I thought that that was ridiculous, and so I went about to build a real conviction review unit. And now I have 10 prosecutors who no longer prosecute cases. They come to work every day and they focus on these cases. They review transcripts. They work closely with the team of investigators I've assigned to the unit. And so it's a painstaking process. But it's critical for us to get this right because I must make sure that we do not release any murderers back into the community. And everyone who raises their hand and says that they were wrongfully convicted, they're not speaking the gospel.

SIMON: Are there police officers and prosecutors who might face criminal charges depending on what you find?

THOMPSON: Well, that's a possibility. But you have to keep in mind that many of these cases are 20 years old, and so it won't be easy to bring charges here because of statute of limitation issues and also because many of these witnesses have died. And so it's hard.

SIMON: Mr. Thompson, to go through this material, does that make you wonder if you have an office that has substantially changed in the 30 years that have gone by?

THOMPSON: I think the office has changed just like Brooklyn has changed a lot. But one thing that should be constant and should've been constant from day one is the importance to do justice as a prosecutor. And so when I called Willie Stuckey's mother the other night to tell her that we were going to vacate his conviction, all I can hear on the other end of the phone was her crying hysterically because she said her son was actually 15 when he was arrested, not 16, and he lost his life in prison. And to tell her that we were going to vacate his conviction was more than she could bear because she no longer has him. But hopefully now she has his good name back.

SIMON: Kenneth Thompson, the district attorney of Brooklyn, New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

THOMPSON: Thank you so much.

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