In January 2006, 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown was murdered at the hands of her own parents. The case not only rocked New York, it would also come to define the work of Ama Dwimoh and her run for Brooklyn district attorney.
Dwimoh, 53, who served as the lead prosecutor in the Brown case, secured convictions of the victim’s stepfather, Caesar Rodriguez, who delivered the fatal blow, and her mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, who did nothing to save her daughter. (Rodriguez got a sentence of 29 years; Santiago got 43).
While the harrowing story shocked the city, Dwimoh, who served as an assistant prosecutor in Brooklyn for 22 years, knows all too well the trauma children face from their abusers. “Every case was the worst case,” she said. “Looking into the eyes of children and seeing the betrayal of trust is something that motivated me and impacted me greatly.”
Dwimoh, a longtime Prospect Heights resident and a top aide to Borough President Eric Adams, is preparing for the September primary as she makes a run to be the Democratic nominee for Brooklyn DA, with the potential to be named the first African and Native American female to assume the office.
Among her goals in office is a toughening of the laws related to crimes against children.
On the campaign trail, Dwimoh has championed the Child Victim’s Act, sponsored by state Senator Brad Hoylman, which would change time restrictions on the prosecution of child sex abusers. Current laws require that cases be brought against perpetrators by the time the survivor is 23 years old, after which time prosecution is no longer possible.
The bill has faced resistance from opponents who are concerned about the financial consequences of such a measure and its impact on institutions such as the Catholic Church. Dwimoh asserted that the opposition is largely political. “I really can’t imagine people are thinking about the children or the survivors,” she said. “It’s not good enough to sit on the sidelines.”
However, Dwimoh doesn’t just intend to bring to justice those guilty of past crimes; she also wants to exonerate those who aren’t guilty. Since the start of former DA Ken Thompson’s administration, which ended last October when he died from cancer, the office strengthened its conviction review unit, which helped overturn convictions for 23 individuals. Dwimoh has called for investigating those who had a role in wrongful convictions.
While known as a tenacious and tough lawyer, Dwimoh landed in hot water in 2010 amidst accusations that she screamed at her interns from some of the country’s most prestigious law schools, allegedly threatening to fire them without reason. After an internal investigation was held, she left her position as assistant DA, ending a career she’d known for more than two decades.
Despite the talk, Dwimoh said it was just that. “It became clear to me that the values I understood the District Attorney’s Office to hold under Joe Hynes and his regime were far different than what I’d been brought up in that office believing,” she said, speaking of the former DA, who exited the office under a cloud of criticism. Dwimoh denied the rumors surrounding her behavior and explained that she’s unapologetically tough in her work. “I never screamed at any intern,” she said. “Do I hold lawyers accountable? Absolutely, and I was demanding because I was in charge of keeping our children safe.”
Despite having experience working under Hynes, Thompson’s predecessor, Dwimoh’s campaign has echoed many of the themes that helped Thompson to win: a commitment to reform in the justice system and vowing to change Brooklyn for the better while serving as a reflection of its residents. “It’s an important moment for the people and the community,” she said.
Dwimoh will face a crowded primary field of competing Democrats in September that includes current acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who has run the office since Thompson’s death; former prosecutors Marc Fliedner, Patricia Gatling and Anne Swern; attorney Arthur Aidala and City Councilman Vincent Gentile. The winning nominee will go on to face a Republican opponent in November.