Then came the Abner Louima case. By 1997, Mr. Thompson had done three years as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York (after having turned down a job in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, ironically.) “I was at my desk late one night, and I knew the guy who had the case from the beginning. I went to law school with him,” Mr. Thompson recalled. “[He] called me up and told me he had a client who was sodomized by the police, and I’m like, ‘Yeah right, okay, I’ll talk to you later.’ He said, ‘No I’m serious, I want you to set up a meeting with your boss.’ And so, weeks later, the Louima case was all in the papers.”
Mr. Thompson, the most junior member of the prosectution team—which included Alan Vinegrad and Loretta Lynch, both of whom would go on to become the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District—was chosen to give the opening statement. “They made a decision to give it to me. I didn’t lobby for it, didn’t expect it,” he said, “but I knew it was going to be the most important assignment I’ve ever had. And when I walked to the court house that day, I was with my fiancée, who is now my wife, there were 20 news vans outside in Cadman Plaza. It was very intimidating, but I went in and gave that opening statement.”
Mr. Thompson’s address to the jury was plainspoken, graphic and meant to inspire discomfort (not unlike his courthouse-steps account of the Strauss-Kahn case).
“Justin Volpe and Charles Schwarz began to inflict their own special brand of punishment,” he recounted to the jury, “their own special brand of brutality, their own special brand of torture. Justin Volpe pushed Mr. Louima down to the floor of the bathroom and Abner Louima’s face ended up next to a filthy toilet bowl. There was Abner Louima, lying there, handcuffed behind his back, pants down to his knees.” And it only got more gut-wrenching from there.
As Mr. Thompson’s own website points out, no less than Jimmy Breslin reported that he “delivered an opening statement that will be remembered.”
“Zach Carter [the U.S. attorney at the time] had hundreds of prosecutors. Why did they choose me?” Mr. Thompson asked himself aloud. “I think they knew that when I speak,” he answered, “I speak in an earnest way to the jury. I don’t talk over jurors, I talk to them, as if we’re all stuck on the 5 train. I say, ‘The guy got out the car, and he punched the guy right in his face.’ I talk to them like that. I don’t go, ‘The guy exited the vehicle and the assailant perpetrated … ’ I don’t talk like that. I am me.”
The Louima case was a watershed moment for Mr. Thompson, a high- profile case in which he not only stood quite clearly on the side of justice, but also one in which he, and the other members of the prosecution, won. “That Louima case to me was the case that really shaped me as a trial lawyer,” he said. “I knew at that point I could try a big case. I had done the trial with these great prosecutors and I held my own. “
But it wasn’t only when he found his legs as a big time trial attorney, but also where he made his first forays into dealing with the press. By his own admission, he took to it gamely. “It was the first time I’d ever spoken to the press,” he remembered, though it’s hard to imagine there was a time before he spoke to the press. “You see that picture right there,” he gestured toward the back wall of his office. “Zach Carter spoke, and then a reporter said, does anyone else have anything to say, and I said, ‘Yeah I do.’ I said, ‘If you’re looking for a hero, look no further than Abner Louima,’ and I made some other comments. Pretty audacious, but I felt that that needed to be said.”
After the Diallo case, Mr. Thompson made the not-unusual move to private practice, joining the large corporate firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius as an employment-discrimination attorney. (“My wife said, ‘We gotta make some money.’”), but after several years, he left there, along with fellow attorneys Douglas Wigdor and Scott Gilly, to form the independent firm Thompson, Wigdor & Gilly.
Over the years, Mr. Thompson’s cases got bigger, and his skills both in the courtroom and in the press seemed to have kept pace.
“He connects with juries,” said a former Thompson Wigdor partner, Andrew Goodstadt. “He connects with members of the media. I mean, you saw him standing out in front of the court house on D.S.K. I mean for a 35-minute uninterrupted CNN interview where you use the word vagina 20 times in four minutes.”
“He is certainly gifted in the way he expresses himself in court,” said one seasoned litigator who has opposed Mr. Thompson in court, “but I think that the handling of the case … there’s certainly things that he does—and I’ve seen it with my own eyes—where it is very much in a gray area. And there are hard-and-fast ethical rules, and he pushes the envelope. And there’ve been instances where I’ve seen judges’ eyes go up, because he pushes the envelope so far that it was clear that he crossed the line.”
In fact, earlier this year, Thompson Wigdor was sanctioned by a Manhattan judge for failing to disclose facts to opposing counsel, which resulted in the departure of named partner Scott Gilly.
“I think the entire Thompson Wigdor model,” said Mr. Goodstadt, “is not as not always as chummy with opposing council as some lawyers are. But they do it all in the interest of their own clients.”
“I think it’s more so there’s tremendous financial gain. There’s tremendous ego wrapped up in it,” the seasoned litigator said. “I guess you’ve got to litigate against him once, and then you just realize he’s so full of shit.”