Three candidates for Brooklyn district attorney clashed Monday night over the prosecution of stop-and-frisk cases, wrongful convictions and other hot-button issues at a raucous and sometimes testy forum.
Abraham George, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, and Kenneth Thompson of Thompson Wigdor, attacked the credibility of District Attorney Charles Hynes, who is seeking a seventh term, at a debate sponsored by Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century.
Brooklyn DA candidates, from left, incumbent Charles Hynes, Abraham George and Kenneth Thompson, listen to a question at Monday evening’s forum at The Dining Room in downtown Brooklyn.    NYLJ/Rick Kopstein
"We are ready to elect someone who the people of Brooklyn can trust, not only protect and strengthen our communities, but make sure every case is investigated and prosecuted with honesty and integrity," said Thompson.
George said that under Hynes’ watch, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has been animated by a "winning-at-all-costs" mentality.
"We need someone to ensure that justice is done and justice is about fair dealing with your adversary, not winning at all costs," he said.
Hynes, 78, defended his record—though sometimes interrupted by jeers from the audience. He emphasized programs his office has established to fight recidivism and lower the crime rate since he took office in 1990.
"You know my record. You know the record I’ve had in this office for nearly 24 years," Hynes told the audience. "Kings County has never been safer. Now it’s up to you to decide whether either Abe George or Ken Thompson have a better record than I do."
As he left the event, Hynes told reporters that the primary for the Democratic nomination, to be held on Sept. 10, was shaping into "a very nasty campaign, it’s shameful." His challengers, said Hynes, had "no care for the truth at all."
The forum took place at The Dining Room, a downtown Brooklyn bar and restaurant, where about 50 supporters of all the candidates gathered. Hynes was greeted by both boos and cheers. Throughout the hour-long debate, audience members voiced their agreement or disagreement with a candidate’s point.
Moderator Aaron Short, a reporter at City & State, posed questions on a range of subjects, from the best case to come out of the office to the first initiative each candidate would launch if elected.
But the prosecutorial approach to cases built on stop-and-frisk police encounters and the handling of questionable convictions were recurring themes.
For instance, Hynes said so-called Terry stops, pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, were a "perfectly legitimate" police tool.
"Of course it was used much more than it should have been used," he said, adding there had been a drop-off in the stops since the beginning of this year. When his assistants spot Fourth Amendment violations in the Early Case Assessment Bureau, Hynes said, "many, many cases are dismissed out of hand."
But George and Thompson accused Hynes of not taking a strong enough stand on the issue.
"I will work with the police commissioner, I will make sure these officers are trained," said Thompson. "I will make sure my office understands that the old days of sitting 19 stories in the sky, shrugging your shoulders at all these young men being stopped and frisked unjustly will come to an end."
Likewise, George said Hynes did not tell police when they overstepped their legal limits on street encounters. If elected, George said, he would charge as a violation individuals found with small amounts of marijuana to lessen the consequences of excessive police stops.
Hynes maintained that his office does "not prosecute kids with small amounts of marijuana," but George charged that was "an outright lie" because people were being prosecuted in Brooklyn on minor marijuana possession.
"I must say how rude you are," Hynes told George when he took the microphone again.
On the subject of wrongful convictions, Thompson said that "federal judge after federal judge" has blasted Hynes for the handling of the cases of Jabbar Collins and William Lopez, whose murder convictions were later vacated (NYLJ, June 9, 2010, and Jan. 17, 2013).
"I have been criticized by exactly three federal judges in two cases in 24 years as DA. To say otherwise is just a flat-out lie," Hynes retorted, raising his voice. Noting the office’s recent consent to dismissing the 1990 murder indictment against David Ranta, Hynes said his office had released 22 defendants.
Ranta’s case called into question the police work of one homicide detective. Hynes’ office is reviewing about 50 murder cases built on the detective’s investigations (NYLJ, May 15).
Thompson said the office faced an "inherent conflict of interest" in probing its own cases and said the state attorney general should investigate any convictions alleging prosecutor or police misconduct.
George, however, said he could reinvestigate the cases rather than "outsource the job" to the attorney general’s office.
A recent filing in Collins’ civil suit claimed Hynes’ office ran "a private jail system where witnesses were illegally interrogated and forcibly detained indefinitely" (NYLJ, May 30).
George and Thompson blasted Hynes on that allegation, with George calling it "Guantánamo Bay-style detention centers out here in Brooklyn."
But Hynes called the allegation "nothing more than the hyperbolic ravings of a lawyer who is irresponsible to make absurd charges. We have never held anyone against their will. We work through the material witness process and that means a witness is brought before a judge forthwith or as soon as they can… The problem is there have been so many horrible charges and so many untruths, that all you can say is that it’s not true."
Joel Rudin, who is representing Collins, said in an interview that he based his claims on statements made by law enforcement officials in sworn depositions, one of whom worked as a Brooklyn DA detective investigator. The agent recalled in the deposition that sometimes material witnesses were placed in hotels.
For Hynes "to deny that was happening means he was completely out of touch all this time when it was happening under his nose," said Rudin. "I don’t believe he didn’t know about it."
During the debate, George and Thompson also tried to set themselves apart from one another.
For instance, George was asked how he thought Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s office handled the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the then-International Monetary Fund managing director who was accused of attempting to rape a hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo, before the closely watched case fell apart when Diallo lost credibility in the eyes of prosecutors.
Diallo, represented by Thompson, later settled a civil action against Strauss-Kahn for an undisclosed amount.
George said Vance’s office handled the case "appropriately" though he said the decision to indict should have come after more investigation.
But George charged that Thompson "failed to do the one thing that every basic rookie prosecutor does: Tell your witness to tell the truth."
George predicted the race would be between him and Thompson.
"Don’t just look for the candidate with the best resume. Don’t just look for the guy that’s handling the high-profile cases. Look for the guy who’s been on the ground for the last eight years [as a state prosecutor]. Look for the guy that’s actually got ideas," said George.
Thompson said he stood by his representation of Diallo. "I got her justice," he said.
"I’m not someone who is up 30,000 feet in the sky looking for the next high-profile case. There’s one common theme in my career and that is I stood up for justice," said Thompson, who as a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District helped obtain convictions against police officers who beat and tortured Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
Thompson said George lacked experience to head the DA’s office.
George, who called himself the "only political outsider" in the race, pointed out that Thompson never served as a state prosecutor. A person running a state agency like the DA’s office should have such experience, he said.
@|Andrew Keshner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.