The man picked to oversee police reforms in Baltimore once helped clear a high-ranking city officer of corruption charges. He represented the prominent venture capitalist “Little Willie” Adams when Adams was found not guilty of running an illegal lottery in the 1980s.
He also represented a teenager who was acquitted in the 1982 killing of a Carroll County farmer, a crime dubbed the “egg man murder.”
For four decades, attorney Kenneth L. Thompson has represented a wide cross-section of the city. Most recently, as a partner with the Baltimore-based law firm Venable, the lifelong Baltimorean has represented large groups, such as the owners of the Horseshoe Casino, and has served on the transition teams of the city’s last two mayors — Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Catherine Pugh.
“I’ve observed his career over the years. I’ve admired his work,” said Andre M. Davis, Baltimore’s new city solicitor. “He’s a really fine lawyer.”
Thompson, 66, rose above a field of more than two dozen teams vying for the monitor position. In a motion selecting Thompson last week, the city and U.S. Justice Department called him “a native Baltimorean with deep ties to the Baltimore community.”
Thompson heads a proposed monitoring team that also includes Charles H. Ramsey, the former Philadelphia and District of Columbia police chief who nearly became Baltimore’s police commissioner in 2007. It also includes Hassan Aden, a former police chief in Greenville, N.C., who now serves as a senior policing adviser at the Washington-based Police Foundation; and Theron Bowman, a former police chief and now deputy city manager in Arlington, Texas.
The monitoring team awaits approval by U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar. It is unclear when the judge will make his decision. Bredar has scheduled a meeting with Thompson and the proposed deputy monitors in his chambers on Tuesday.
The team is to be tasked with overseeing the extensive reforms to the city's Police Department negotiated by the city and the Justice Department. The sides negotiated the consent decree after Justice Department investigators found a years-long pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the city. The investigation was ordered after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
Once the team is approved, it will have 90 days to develop a plan to oversee the reforms.
Thompson declined to comment for this article because, he said, the judge has not approved the team.
Associates and friends say Thompson has devoted his life to living in and participating in issues of the day in Baltimore.
Attorney George L. Russell hired Thompson out of law school.
“He is uniquely qualified for this,” said Russell, a former circuit judge and city solicitor. “He understands the law and the community of Baltimore where we both grew up. He’s the right man, at the right place at the right time.”
Billy Murphy, the Baltimore attorney who represented Gray’s family in its civil lawsuit against the city, wrote a letter in support of Thompson’s team. He called Thompson “a person of high integrity.”
Joseph Haskins Jr., president and CEO of Harbor Bank, said Thompson has been exposed to a wide cross section of the city, from his experience as a lawyer to the various boards on which he has served, including Harbor Bank, where he developed an understanding of the needs and concerns of local business owners.
“He has had real-life experiences and been exposed to a myriad of different communities,” Haskins said. Thompson is “someone who has an open mind and an objectivity. I just think it’s the right choice."
Thompson has represented large organizations including CBAC Gaming LLC, the owners of the Horseshoe Casino. The group was sued by residents who claimed the construction of the casino polluted the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. The case was dismissed in 2014.
Thompson also represented the information technology company Unisys Corp. in a lawsuit filed by the city, which claimed Unisys failed to complete work on a property tax computer system. The city accepted a $5 million settlement in 2015.
Thompson grew up in West Baltimore on the 900 block of Wheeler St. — a stretch of brick rowhouses with wide front porches overlooking modest yards. In a 1990 Baltimore Sun profile, he described the neighborhood as a middle class black neighborhood where “education was stressed.”
From about the ninth grade, he told The Sun, he wanted to be a lawyer.
“In a sense it was reinforced by the kids I grew up with,” he said. “We used to have our own little debating team. We didn’t debate the great ills of the world. We started out arguing over cars.”
Thompson graduated from Baltimore City College in 1969 and earned degrees at the University of Maryland and the University of Maryland Law School. He was admitted to the state bar in 1977.
He was in his third year in law school when he asked Russell for a job.
“I said, ‘You haven’t passed the bar,’” Russell recalled. Thompson told him: “I’ll take that office.”
“He came in and he never left,” Russell said.
One of his first cases was representing Lt. Col. James H. Watkins, a deputy police chief in Baltimore who was charged with bribery and corruption. Watkins was acquitted by jurors in three hours in 1979, The Sun reported at the time.
“When he came with me, he got the huge cases,” Russell said. “He performed outstandingly. Everyone immediately saw in him that they had a jewel.”
The next year, Russell made Thompson a partner. They represented Adams, who rose to be one of the city’s first venture capitalists, financing black-owned business such as Parks Sausage and Super Pride supermarkets. Adams, accused of operating an illegal lottery, was found not guilty in 1984.
Thompson also represented the 17-year-old boy accused in the “egg man murder.” The victim, a 60-year-old Carroll County farmer, was delivering fresh eggs in Poppleton when he was robbed and shot. Thompson contended the boy was with his family at the time of the killing and witnesses had misidentified the teen. The boy was acquitted.
Russell said the duo would stay up all night to prepare for trial.
“In all these cases, people thought we had a law firm of 20 people,” he said.
In 1986, Russell and Thompson, which had become one of the best-known black law firms in Baltimore, merged with a white firm, Piper & Marbury, the state’s second-largest law office at the time, which specialized in banking, securities, municipal bond and real estate practice.
Thompson moved away from criminal cases to focus on commercial litigation. He represented Exxon and different car companies. Thompson joined Venable in 2011.
Thompson is married to Dale Thompson, deputy director at the city’s Public Works Department, and lives in North Baltimore. He has one son.
Baltimore Sun Research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Kenneth L. Thompson
Title: Partner at Venable LLP
Education: Graduated from Baltimore City College (1969), University of Maryland (1973) and University of Maryland Law School (1976).
Family: Wife Dale Thompson is deputy director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works. Has one son.