As the primary election nears, the gloves came off Thursday evening at a forum for the race for Brooklyn district attorney.
Candidates and some members of the audience went on the offensive against Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez over his office’s record of wrongful convictions and his handling of cases largely while working under former District Attorney Charles Hynes.
Gonzalez, who was put in charge of the office last year after Kenneth Thompson died from cancer three years into his term, is considered the frontrunner in the race and all but one of the four opponents he faced off with at the forum are former Brooklyn prosecutors who worked alongside Gonzalez. He argued he has done much to undo wrongful convictions.
The other candidates in attendance were Ama Dwimoh, who is special counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and who was a Brooklyn ADA from 1988 to 2010; Marc Fliedner, who was an ADA from 1987 until last year; and Anne Swern, who worked for the office for 34 years, beginning in 1980.
Patricia Gatling, an attorney at Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf who is also a former Brooklyn prosecutor, was not in attendance to the forum.
Gonzalez began working for the office in 1995.
Also in attendance was New York City Councilman Vincent Gentile, a former Queens prosecutor who represents portions of south Brooklyn. All of the candidates are Democrats and the primary election is scheduled to take place Sept. 12.
The forum, which was held at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights and hosted by seven social justice and police reform groups, attracted a lively—and, at times, raucous—crowd of more than 300.
“Justice for Akai Gurley!” assorted audience members yelled out during the event, referring to a black man who was shot dead in a dark stairwell by police officer Peter Liang while conducting a vertical patrol of a housing project in East New York, Brooklyn.
Fliedner accused Gonzalez in his opening remarks of “out and out corruption,” “lack of respect for victims,” and “disregard for the rule of law” for the fact that his office has not indicted one of the alleged assailants in the racially charged beating in 2013 of Taj Patterson in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
Five Hasidic men were charged in the beating, some of whom belonging to the Shomrim neighborhood patrol. Patterson’s attorney says one of the assailants was not charged because of political connections.
Gonzalez did not respond to Fliedner’s comments on the Patterson case, but did spar with both Fliedner and Gentile when the candidates were discussing wrongful convictions.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has worked to clear 23 wrongful convictions that occurred during the Hynes years. Hynes, who was Thompson’s predecessor, was first elected as the borough’s top prosecutor in 1989.
“That is something we have to careful about, if we have to give the office back to someone who was in management under the Hynes administration,” Gentile said.
Gonzalez responded to Gentile that his office has been transparent in its effort to correct wrongful convictions and that it has “outed” ADAs who failed to turn over Brady andRosario materials.
“I’ve done more work on wrongful convictions than all of the candidates put together,” Gonzalez said.
When candidates were asked if they supported Adams’ recent announcement that the state should form a commission to investigate prosecutors who worked on cases that turned out to be wrongful convictions, candidates said they back the idea.
“Making good on the past is not enough,” Swern said. “It’s not enough to say to someone who’s been in prison for 20 years: ‘Here’s your life back.’”
Gonzalez said that his office will fire prosecutors who intentionally commit wrongdoing.
“There’s no question that we’re not going to stand by assistant DAs who do wrongdoing,” Gonzalez said.
Among the other topics discussed were term limits for district attorneys; each candidate said they would support limiting tenures to two or three terms.
When considering the typical metrics of a candidate’s success, Gonzalez has been viewed as the candidate to beat in the crowded race.
He has picked up a raft of endorsements from influential New York City electeds like Public Advocate Letitia James and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and has taken in more than $1 million, giving him a comfortable fundraising lead, according to campaign finance reports filed with the New York State Board of Elections.
Excluding loans, both Dwimoh and Gentile have raised more than $163,000 this year and Swern has raised more than $284,600. Fundraising totals for Fliedner were not available on the Board of Elections website.