News & Politics

Wrongfully Convicted Hynes Victims Fight Back in Brooklyn Judge Race

Sandra Roper and John O’Hara, themselves targets of Brooklyn’s ex-D.A., earn endorsements from two innocent men he sent to prison

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Although Ken Thompson toppled Joe Hynes in 2013, his ghost continues to hover over the Brooklyn D.A.’s office he ran for nearly a quarter-century. Many key players stayed in the office when Thompson took over, after Hynes was finally ousted following years of charges that he’d railroaded political opponents and innocent individuals into convictions. And five current candidates for Brooklyn D.A. — including acting D.A. Eric Gonzalez, who took over after Thompson’s untimely death last October — formerly served in the Hynes administration; Vinnie Gentile, the only “outsider” in the race, was a close Hynes ally.

A battle-scarred coterie of Hynes foes, however, continues to fight on against his legacy — both to exonerate more of those wrongfully convicted on his watch, and to restore their own reputations.

Last Wednesday in DUMBO, two leading exonerees from Hynes-era cases, Jabbar Collins and Derrick Hamilton, endorsed the campaigns of two of Hynes’s most prominent political foes, fellow exoneree John O’Hara and Sandra Roper, to become civil court judges in Brooklyn.

Of the four, the least well-known story belongs to Roper. But her scrappy campaign to unseat Hynes in 2001 helped pave the way for Thompson, who on election night in 2013 told her, “Sandra, if you had not run, I never would have won.”

It was in the Attica law library in 2001 where Derrick Hamilton first read about Roper’s challenge to Hynes. Wrongly imprisoned by Hynes’s prosecutors (with help from notorious NYPD Detective Louie Scarcella) for a 1983 Bed-Stuy murder, Hamilton recalls that “I was happy to see that someone was running against him. And Sandra showed the world he was beatable.”

It was the first primary challenge against a sitting D.A. the city had seen for nearly two decades. But with only $21,000 in her coffers, Roper scored 37 percent of the Democratic vote against the three-time incumbent.

Roper, a civil rights activist in Crown Heights with a law office in Bed-Stuy, accused Hynes of padding his office’s conviction rates, and called for more alternatives to incarceration and end to mandatory drug crime sentences. On primary day, her fellow black and Caribbean voters gave her strong support.

Hynes had tried to thwart the insurgency, using every political-machine trick in the book. He challenged Roper’s ballot petitions — and subpoenaed more than 150 of her petitioners to question how they got the signatures. The D.A.’s office even twice sent investigators to Roper’s mother’s home, pressuring her for information about the petition signatories.

Hynes’s voter-intimidation efforts temporarily succeeded, as Roper was removed from the ballot in mid-August of 2001 for allegedly faking signatures. But two weeks before the primary, a judge reinstated her. The Brooklyn Democratic machine reportedly didn’t like Roper because she was aligned with two civil court judges they did not want. But Hynes had other reasons for his animus.

Roper’s family moved to Brooklyn from Panama in the mid-Sixties, eventually inhabiting the same house on St. John’s Place in Crown Heights for four decades. An honors student at Sheepshead Bay High School, Sandra graduated in 1974 as one of the few black students in the school. She then earned a degree in pharmacy at Long Island University and later a JD from Brooklyn Law School.

It was August of 1990, Roper recalls, when she hung up her shingle on Fulton Street near Marcy Avenue in Bed-Stuy. At the storefront law office, she handled mortgage cases and other local civil suits. Meanwhile, in federal court she took on pharmaceutical regulatory matters, helping bring Claritin to the market. She was active in community issues throughout the nineties, eventually serving as the Brooklyn chair of Habitat for Humanity.

One day in the spring of 2001, O’Hara, a longtime thorn in the side of both Hynes and the Brooklyn machine, walked into Roper’s law office. She had no idea who he was. But since O’Hara was wearing a trenchcoat, she says, “everybody on the street thought he was a cop.”

O’Hara urged Roper to run against Hynes, because Judge John Phillips was no longer in the race. The “Kung-Fu Judge,” a longtime Bed-Stuy fixture, had been sidelined by Hynes, who had Phillips declared mentally unfit. Roper’s office was near the Slave Theater, which Phillips owned. She had known the judge for years, and she quickly agreed to follow O’Hara’s advice.

Throughout the campaign, Roper began to raise issues that Hynes didn’t want people to hear. She pointed out that in his 1998 run for governor, Hynes had taken a $12,000 cash contribution ($11,900 over the legal limit) from an influential member of the Satmar Hasids. And she charged that Hynes’s primary residence was his home in Breezy Point, forcing a judge to rule that the D.A.’s apartment in Bay Ridge qualified him for the Brooklyn office.

Hynes began digging into Roper’s law practice during the campaign, and Roper began to hear rumors of a coming indictment in early 2002. Over the next three years, she was brought before the Bar Association’s Grievance Committee three times, but was cleared of wrongdoing in all three cases.

Nevertheless, Hynes managed to persuade a city administrative judge to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Roper in one of those cases. Starting in the mid-1990s, Roper had defended Mary Lee Ward, an elderly Bed-Stuy widow who faced foreclosure. Roper spent over five years on the case, successfully defeating Bank of America and keeping Ward in her home. But then a dispute arose over whether Roper was entitled to $9,000 from Ward’s escrow account in payment for her services.

Rest assured that the media was there when Roper and her daughter Norma showed up at the Brooklyn courthouse in June 2003. “D.A.’s Rival Indicted in 10G Scam,” read the Daily News headline. The Post later dubbed it a “Granny Bilk.” Roper refused a plea bargain offer, a jury deadlocked in the case, and in early 2005 a judge threw it out.

That case ended just as the 2005 election campaign began. That January, Hynes issued an unusually candid warning to Roper and other prospective challengers: “I fully expect to make it very painful for the people who run against me.”

These days Roper is still in a bit of pain, although more from the reconstructive knee surgery she had recently, which causes her to walk with a cane. She’s nevertheless been making the rounds at subway stops and other campaign haunts. A grandmother (of seven), she’s a warm and engaging person. When we spoke over the summer at the Park Slope farmers’ market, Roper turned away for a moment to compliment a passerby on her colorfully patterned shorts.

If Roper prevails on Tuesday, most of the cases she would handle are disputes in the $5,000 to $25,000 range — not unlike the case that almost ended her legal career. That’s one of many reasons she says that a victory means she will be able to “walk through the courthouse doors at 141 Livingston Street and feel vindicated.” And it would be another victory for O’Hara and his fellow exonerees against Joe Hynes.

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