The Criminal Justice Forum featuring the Brooklyn District Attorney candidates at St. Francis College last week featured fierce debate and a seemingly split audience showcasing just how close the DA primary might be this September.
Brian Vines, host of BRIC TV’s BK Live and BHeard Town Hall moderated the event which featured candidates including the acting DA Eric Gonzalez, Anne Swern, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner and Vincent Gentile.
The candidates discussed issues ranging from the cash bail system to closing Rikers Island.
“When you think about mass incarceration, when you think about the disproportionate contact among minorities with the criminal justice system,” said Swern. “There is no one, no one in the system, who wields more power than the DA.”
The candidates talked “Broken Windows” policing, which enforces low-level crimes such as turnstile jumping or carrying an open container, and the cash bail system, which many advocates argue is inequitable and puts low-income New Yorkers in jail.
Dwimoh said that “broken windows” policies were “criminalizing being poor,” and argued for “seasoned prosecutors” who had experience. Fliedner called “broken windows” offenses “survival offenses,” and argued that courts should not seek bail “on cases where we’re not seeking jail.”
Gonzales agreed that “when we set bail on people who can’t make bail, we’ve in essence criminalized the fact that they live in poverty.”
He held that he was the only one of the candidates to have changed bail policy to “only ask for bail when necessary.” He also argued that Brooklyn courts ask for the least amount of bail, compared to other counties.
When questions turned towards the issue of wrongful convictions, the debate heated up even more. Before his death in 2016, former DA Ken Thompson overturned 22 wrongful convictions with many being carried out by his predecessor Charles Hynes.
“That’s the worst thing you can say about a DA’s office,” said Gentile. “That a DA’s office is convicting innocent people and putting them in jail.”
Though all five of the candidates were eager to align themselves with Thompson, each pointed fingers when it came to Hynes, whose office has been accused with misconduct in recent years.
“I’m the only one here that did not go through the Brooklyn DA’s office, that was not part of the management of the DA’s office when those wrongful convictions were happening,” said Gentile, calling Gonzalez “a creation of Charles Hines.”
Fliedner also went after Gonzalez, accusing him of “a disregard for the rule of law, a lack of respect for victims, and out-and-out acts of corruption.” He was met with some applause, but loud booing as well, some audience members calling out “and what about you?”
Swern also argued with Gonzalez over their respective records. She accused Gonzalez of claiming credit for a youth court initiative that her office had begun, and he attacked her for her role in Hynes’s office.
“When you led the office with Charles Hynes, you didn’t get it done,” said Gonzalez. “And you sat quietly when they talked about wrongful convictions, you were the first assistant DA.”
The candidates continued to fire back at one another until interrupted by an audience member yelling “Justice for Gurley!” The room went silent, and Vines took the moment to move on to the next question, though calls for “Justice for Gurley” would continue for the next two hours.
Akai Gurley, 28, was shot by Police Officer Peter Liang in a stairwell at the Louis Pink Houses in East New York on Nov. 20, 2014. His aunt, Hertensia Petersen, was present in the audience, along with Victoria Davis, the sister of Delrawn Small who was killed by off-duty cop Wayne Isaacs during a road-rage incident in 2016.
“What will you do to ensure officers who kill New Yorkers face justice?” Davis asked the candidates, adding that past district attorneys had communicated sufficiently with victims’ families.
“We held Peter Liang responsible for what he did,” Gonzalez responded, though the audience reacted, yelling out “bull” and “how about jail time?”
“You can disagree with the sentence recommendation, but the Brooklyn DA’s office was the first DA’s office that held a police officer accountable in a very long time in this city,” shot back Gonzalez, adding that he was always open to meeting with families of victims.
But Petersen argued that Thompson had never met with her family to explain to them what was going on, adding that Fliedner was the one who had been willing to talk to them, and that most of the information they had received was through the media.
“The Brooklyn DA has failed each and every one of us,” said Petersen, facing Gonzalez and pointing at him. “Do not run on Ken Thompson’s coattails. Run on your own vision. Give the people of Brooklyn what you want for your family.”