Brooklyn Deserves a New D.A.

Why the 23-year reign of Charles Hynes must end

Brooklyn Deserves a New D.A.
Illustration By Drew Friedman

Late on October 18, a Thursday, veteran criminal defense lawyer Mark Bederow was frustrated. He had made a half-dozen formal requests over a period of months for more documents in the Brooklyn armed-robbery case of 64-year-old Ronald Bozeman, and it felt like he was banging his head against a wall.

As Bozeman languished in jail, Bederow had learned a series of disturbing things about the case that led him to believe it should have been dismissed months earlier. But the promised documents—known as "Brady material" after the relevant case law—had not arrived.

Shortly after 5 p.m., he sent an e-mail to prosecutor Sabeeha Madni, who works for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. "Please send the documents immediately," he wrote.

The Kingpin: Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes assumes the position during a December press conference. In his sixth term, he has become mired in controversy.
Caleb Ferguson
The Kingpin: Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes assumes the position during a December press conference. In his sixth term, he has become mired in controversy.
Hynes was excoriated by a federal judge for protecting prosecutor Michael Vecchione in the midst of misconduct allegations.
Courtesy CNBC
Hynes was excoriated by a federal judge for protecting prosecutor Michael Vecchione in the midst of misconduct allegations.

Two hours later, Madni responded. "Relax," she sniffed. "You'll get them. It's not like any of that material exonerates your client anyway, so it's not even technically Brady."

Madni turned out to be wrong. And Ronald Bozeman would spend more than a year in jail for a crime he didn't commit.

A number of cases like Bozeman's have lately cast Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and his office in a less-than-flattering light. There have been repeated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, political influence peddling, and basic ineptitude. Hynes has been widely criticized, for example, for shielding rapists and pedophiles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn as a way of currying favor with politically influential rabbis. And several high-profile criminal cases have fallen apart after revelations that his office has either manipulated evidence or withheld exculpatory evidence it is required to disclose to defense attorneys. In several cases, innocent men spent months or even years behind bars.

"It seems that the culture of that office has reached a point where its reputation has suffered tremendously," says Bennett Gershman, a leading expert on prosecutorial misconduct who teaches law at Pace University. "People look at that office as a place that cares about winning and pleasing certain constituencies and really doesn't show a sense of doing justice. The other sense is that it's a political office, and Hynes is a political prosecutor. He's been there a long time. Maybe he's been there too long."

It's certainly the case that Hynes has been in office for a political eternity: 23 years, through six terms, six police commissioners, and three mayors. He has held sway through the racially motivated slaying of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; through the Crown Heights riots and the conviction of Charles Price and Lemrick Nelson; the precinct-house assault of Abner Louima by officer Justin Volpe; and the corruption trials of judges Victor Barron and Gerald Garson. And those are just a few highlights from a long list.

Now 77 years old, Hynes came from a modest start in a chaotic Flatbush home. He was educated in city Catholic schools and at St. John's, then spent six years as a Legal Aid lawyer before becoming a prosecutor in Brooklyn. He was fire commissioner under Ed Koch. Governor Mario Cuomo named him a special prosecutor in 1985. His pursuit as a special prosecutor of Michael Griffith's killers in the infamous 1987 Howard Beach case catapulted him to prominence and led to his 1989 election as Kings County District Attorney. He has been there ever since.

But Hynes's relatively brisk rise in the '80s flatlined in the '90s. In 1994, he ran for state attorney general and lost to Karen Burstein in the primary (though he did outpoll future attorney general and governor Eliot Spitzer). In 1998, he ran for governor and lost badly in the Democratic primary to Peter Vallone, who in turn lost to incumbent George Pataki.

Hynes never again sought higher office, leading some observers to suggest he is a man with bruised ambitions. Even as a long-entrenched incumbent Democrat running for D.A. in a Democratic Party stronghold, he has sometimes struggled. His primary win in 2005 was surprisingly close: With more than 115,000 votes cast, he won just 41 percent, beating out the second-place finisher, African-American state senator John Sampson, by 5,600 votes. And while he ran unopposed for D.A. in 2009, now, with the 2013 election less than a year away, two challengers have already emerged: Kenneth Thompson, a well-known criminal defense lawyer who represented the maid who accused the prominent French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault, and Abraham George, a 33-year-old former Manhattan prosecutor.

"He was vulnerable in 2005, and he's vulnerable now," said a longtime Hynes observer. "The real issue is Mr. and Mrs. Jones in Bed-Stuy or along Ocean Parkway, what they think, whether they care about this stuff."

If you look at Hynes's official biography, you'd be tempted to think he was more interested in social welfare than in prosecuting felons. It focuses largely on community programs he developed: the first nursing home fraud units; a family justice center, dedicated to his mother, a victim of domestic violence; an early alternative treatment program for drug offenders; programs to help prisoners re-enter society; a gun buy-back program now replicated citywide.

"Hynes has been one of the most innovative prosecutors in the country," says Ken Fisher, a lawyer and former city councilman who was involved in Hynes's first campaign for D.A. "But it's very hard to sustain innovation over a long period of time."

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