In the Custody Door, Out the Civilian Door

Don Thompson was fighting injustice decades before the Daniel Prude case

Published in 2021 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine

By Matt Chandler on August 20, 2021


In March 2020, months before the world would know the name George Floyd, Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man in Rochester, suffered what his family termed a “mental crisis.” Police who were called to the scene took down Prude, who was naked; handcuffed him, placed a spit hood on his head and restrained him. Prude later died from his injuries. 

Defense attorney Don Thompson, managing partner of Rochester’s Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin, had represented Prude’s brother, Joe, in an unrelated matter. So when it was time to file a civil lawsuit for Daniel, Thompson got the call. 

“Joe calls us because things aren’t adding up, and he’s not getting information from the cops,” Thompson says. “We all later saw the terrible body-worn camera video of Mr. Prude being handcuffed naked and sitting on the street in freezing cold weather by these officers. … The information that Joe conveyed was, ‘I think they’ve killed my brother.’”

Prude, who coded in the ambulance, was placed on life support. “We went to the hospital the following day, and there was severe limitation in terms of being able to see [Daniel],” Thompson says. “They wouldn’t even let Joe see him until two days later, when they asked him to authorize the life support removal.”

Thompson has been fighting injustice for decades—working with the Innocence Project, for example, to secure the release of multiple men convicted of crimes they did not commit. 

While death cases involving the police can draw attention to police or prosecutorial misconduct, Thompson says such misconduct extends beyond the high-profile.

“When a police officer lies to me, or a prosecutor lies, I just get worked up,” he says. “That will get me out of bed in the morning to file three more motions.” 

Thompson adds that one of the biggest obstacles in using DNA evidence to exonerate a client is often the prosecutor’s unwillingness to allow the testing to even occur. 

“They will hold on to the DNA samples and refuse to give them to the defense,” he says. “Their attitude is, ‘You had your chance, now give it up.’ It offends me, more than anything, when they have to cheat to be sure that they win. If my client is guilty, give him a fair trial, and he will get convicted. But be fair.” 

In his Innocence Project cases, Thompson says there is obvious bias favoring the prosecution. 

“In New York, there is something called the presumption of regularity, which basically says, if you were convicted, we presume that was the correct decision,” he says. “Of course, that is a fictional presumption from a system based on maintaining the status quo.”

For Thompson, who says the losses stick much longer than the wins, one of his great satisfactions is letting a client know his conviction is being vacated. 

“It really doesn’t hit them until they are in court to hear the judge say the words,” he says. “They will look at the custody door they came in through, and then they look at the civilian door they will be going out of, and then it hits them. That’s where the payoff is for me.” 

He recalls the case of a man who was imprisoned for 19 years. Thompson worked alongside Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project and a member of O.J. Simpson’s defense lawyer “Dream Team,” to exonerate the man. After they’d done it, Thompson asked his client, “If you could have anything, what would it be?” 

“He said, ‘I want a Michelob,’” Thompson says. So Thompson, Neufeld and the rest of the team walked to Rochester’s famed Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where he enjoyed a cold Michelob to celebrate his freedom. 

“To be able to walk out of that courthouse, to walk two blocks to a restaurant, and order a cold beer, that was everything to him,” Thompson says. 

The Prude case is particularly challenging, since a New York grand jury voted in February not to indict any of the police officers involved. “I don’t know that there is any extra pressure as a result of the Grand Jury, because I feel that pressure all the time,” Thompson says. “That’s what keeps me on edge.” 

Even so, he was shocked by the waves of intolerance after Prude’s death. 

“Probably three-quarters of the people I deal with are African American or other minorities. But the thing I wasn’t aware of—or wasn’t as much as I should have been—is that race is always a factor,” Thompson says. “If you’re white, it’s easy to disregard that. After seeing the camera footage, I couldn’t help but think, ‘What if he had been white?’ It just never would have happened that way. Holy shit: It’s race. It is remarkable to me, the level of racism and animosity that we have all grown up with, that’s part of the background static.”

By the Numbers

Some stats from Thompson’s representation of Valentino Dixon, accused of a 1991 murder he didn’t commit:

  • 27: The number of years Dixon spent in jail. 
  • 20: The number of years Thompson spent working the case.
  • 130: The number of drawings of golf courses Dixon, an artist, finished in prison between 2012 and 2014.
  • 20×30: The dimensions of the first drawing he completed—and sold—as a free man in 2018. Titled Augusta The Beautiful, Michelle Obama bought it as a Christmas gift for the 44th president of the United States.

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