DA Hynes Seeks 7th Term, Legacy Under Attack

(Photo by MTA, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes office is under scrutiny over wrongful convictions and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. (Photo by MTA, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One of the most significant campaigns in New York City’s 2013 election cycle is also one of the least known to the public: The race to unseat Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes.

For 23 years, Hynes, 78, and his army of prosecutors have determined the fate of criminal defendants – from low-level to felony crimes – in the city’s most populous borough. Election after election, Hynes has faced little to no opposition but in next month’s Democratic primary, he’s being challenged by Kenneth P. Thompson, 47, an experienced trial lawyer and former federal prosecutor, at a time when his office is stained by a series of scandals and controversies. Thompson’s campaign got a boost two weeks ago when Abe George, a former Manhattan prosecutor who was also running, dropped out of the race and endorsed Hynes’ challenger.

“The race for Brooklyn District Attorney is the most important race in the city other than the race for mayor,” said Errol Louis, a political analyst and host of NY1’s Inside City Hall. “Prosecutorial discretion and abuse is the discussion in this campaign.”

Hynes’ long-standing success as Brooklyn’s chief law enforcement officer is a product of many forces, including deep roots in the state and city’s old political establishment, the advantage of being the incumbent and a general lack of voter familiarity with the functions of the district attorney’s office. But he has also shown a wide reach in the borough’s black communities and has been applauded for creating nationally recognized alternatives-to-prison programs and crime prevention initiatives

Hynes has received the endorsements of state and city elected officials, influential black clergy in Brooklyn and even the city’s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins. To unseat “Joe” Hynes, as his close friends and colleagues call him, is no easy feat.

A Cloud of Controversy

In 2012, Hynes was accused of cronyism when he declined to investigate his political patron, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the former Brooklyn Democratic Party boss. Lopez was accused of ethics violations involving the sexual harassment of young female aides, including touching and fondling women staffers.

Hynes has also been criticized for declining to release the names of child sex abuse defendants in the politically powerful Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities. And, in May, it was revealed in a civil lawsuit deposition that the Brooklyn D.A.’s office detained reluctant witnesses against their will in hotel rooms.

Yet the most damaging criticism against Hynes’ office concerns wrongful convictions and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, which have disproportionately affected black and Latino communities, and people who are economically disadvantaged.

“It is so important that people of color understand the power of prosecutors,” says Angela J. Davis, a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law and author of “Arbitrary Justice: the Power of the American Prosecutor.”

“They are the most powerful officials in the criminal justice system – more powerful than police officers or even judges –  because they decide whether an individual will be charged with a crime and what the charge will be,” says Davis. “There is significant evidence that prosecutors often use their power and discretion in ways that have a negative impact on people of color, whether they are charged with a crime, or are victims of a crime.”

The Case Against David Ranta

In June 1991, one year into Hynes’ administration, David Ranta, an unemployed house painter, stood before a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge to receive his prison sentence for the murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, who was fatally shot in a bungled robbery.

In his final statement to the court, Ranta said, “I’m not the man that shot the rabbi. All your witnesses you put up against me were from Detectives [Louis] Scarcella and Camille, who I find two very corrupt cops.”

Ranta leveled allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Among the tactics he said prosecutors and investigators used to railroad him were using unreliable witnesses, lying and presenting a misleading criminal scenario to the jury. Despite this, he was sentenced to 37½ years to life in an upstate New York maximum-security prison.

In the final words of his statement to the court, Ranta made a prediction: “It’s not going to stick,” he told the court. “We are going to meet again, and I hope to God He brings out the truth because of lot of people are going to be ashamed of themselves.”

In 2010, Ranta’s attorney prompted an investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s newly-formed Conviction Integrity Unit. As Ranta had predicted 22 years earlier, he was freed from blame in the rabbi’s 1990 murder. Last March 22, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Miriam Cyrulnik vacated Ranta’s conviction, declaring: “Sir, you are a free man.” One day after his release, Ranta suffered a severe heart attack, but he survived.

Ranta’s attorney has filed a notice of claim against the city and police officers involved in the case, seeking $150 million in compensation and punitive damages.

“Prosecutorial misconduct is the second cause of wrongful convictions,” said Davis. “It is followed by misidentification of witnesses.”

The Fox and the Henhouse

In early July, Hynes formed yet another layer of review when he established a panel to look into more than 50 cases handled by disgraced NYPD Detective Scarcella, who investigated Ranta’s case. Related to the accusations of cronyism in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, Scarcella’s daughter, Jacqueline, since 2001 has worked as an assistant district attorney for Hynes’ office. Hynes’ challenger in the primary, says the Brooklyn D.A., has lost all credibility to investigate his own possible wrongful convictions.

Attorney Kenneth Thompson is challenging D.A. Hynes in the September 10 primary. (Photo from Thompson's law firm website)

Attorney Kenneth Thompson is challenging D.A. Hynes in the September 10 primary. (Photo from Thompson’s law firm website)

In May, Thompson wrote a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo requesting that he appoint a special prosecutor to review the 50-plus questionable murder cases. Thompson is a former federal prosecutor whose most recent high-profile case was representing Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper who in 2011 accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, of sexual assault.

“It has become clear that, considering this troubling pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions, District Attorney Hynes is not capable of overseeing a truly independent review of his own cases,” Thompson said in a statement. “Given the seriousness and scope of D.A. Hynes’ tainted prosecutions, the Governor ought to refer these cases to the Attorney General or another special prosecutor who does not have a conflict of interest. It is simply unacceptable for the fox to continue guarding the henhouse.”

George, 35, who pulled out of the September 10 primary, had also questioned Hynes’ seriousness in preventing or correcting wrongful convictions.

“Hynes recently admitted that he may have convicted innocent people, but he has stymied efforts to investigate the cases,” George, who recently worked as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, told Black and Brown News in a written questionnaire. “Last week he announced the creation of a panel to investigate up to fifty wrongful convictions, but he packed the committee with his friends and allies.” He added, “These are not the actions of a D.A. serious about doing justice by the people of Brooklyn.”

Hard to Miss and Ignore Patterns

Ranta’s wrongful conviction and 22-years in prison for a crime he did not commit is not an aberration or a one-time breach of ethics and conduct in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. In 1995, Jabbar Collins, a 22-year-old father of three, was prosecuted and convicted for the murder of Rabbi Abraham Pollack, a landlord in the closely-knit Hasidic enclave of Williamsburg. Pollack was shot to death while collecting rent from tenants. Collins was sentenced to 34 years to life in prison for the crime.

In 2010, Collins’ conviction was overturned. Federal Judge Dora L. Irizarry, of the United States District Court in Brooklyn, freed Collins and fully dismissed all charges against him because of “pervasive prosecutorial misconduct at his trial.” Collins is suing the city of New York, Brooklyn prosecutors and NYPD detectives involved in the case for $150 million. In the civil complaint, prosecutors in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office are accused of gross misconduct, including coercing witnesses to give false and unreliable testimony, concealing evidence that was favorable to Collins, and lying and misleading the court and defense counsel to cover up their unlawful behavior.

In 2012, several more men were released from jail or prison, as a result of wrongful convictions due to either sloppy work or deceitful practices by attorneys in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office. All of the men – Ronald Bozeman, William Lopez, Lawrence Williams and Darrell Dula – had these common characteristics: they were either black, Latino and/or economically disadvantaged.

“Wrongful convictions are rare,” said Louis of NY1. “To find several in the same district attorney’s office is highly unusual and very newsworthy. It is the central issue in this election.”

In another pattern that is hard to ignore, Collins, Ranta and Dula were all convicted, or detained, for crimes against members of the Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities – a powerful political base – which Hynes has been criticized for shielding in his refusal to release the names of individuals who are accused of child sex abuse and molestation.

Hynes defended the policy of protecting their identity, but he does not extend the same protection to sex abusers from other communities. Dula, who was wrongly detained for the rape of a 16-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl, who later recanted her tale to police investigators, is one example. Amidst the hotly-contested political campaign, Hynes changed his policy last month and released the names of more than 40 sex offenders in the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities convicted since 2009.

A Stained Legacy

The history of Hynes’ connection to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and the New York political establishment dates back decades. In 1969, he joined the Brooklyn D.A.’s office as an assistant district attorney, and was later promoted to the Rackets Bureau. In 1975, Gov. Hugh Carey appointed him special prosecutor to investigate nursing home fraud in the State of New York. In 1980, Mayor Ed Koch appointed Hynes fire commissioner. In 1989, Hynes successfully ran for Brooklyn District Attorney and has been reelected every four years since then. He is a political powerhouse.

Despite Hynes’ support of alternatives-to-prison programs, which have earned him a reputation for being innovative, and his long political career, the latest string of scandals have exposed profound flaws at the core of what a Brooklyn District Attorney is mandated to do as a public institution.

“This is a shocking coda to a very impressive career. Voters will decide, but the larger questions in Charles Hynes’ office mar his legacy and record,” said Louis. “That Hynes created a review panel says something seriously could be wrong.”

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office did not respond to email requests seeking comment.

Sharon Toomer is publisher of BlackandBrownNews.com (BBN) and BBN’s BrooklynTown Crier. Disclosure: From 1999 to 2002, she served as deputy director of public information for D.A. Hynes.

This article was first published on BBN and is the first installment of the series The Real Untouchables: District Attorneys-Prosecutors. It was also written as part of the Covering NYC: Political Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

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  1. Pingback: Opinion: Are Prosecutors Untouchable, Free of Accountability? | Voices of NY

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