On September 10, Kenneth Thompson, a former federal prosecutor defeated six-term incumbent, 78-year-old D.A. Charles Hynes 55-44 in the Democratic primary for District Attorney of Kings County (Brooklyn, NY). Though he lost the Democratic primary, Hynes also ran, unopposed, on the Republican and Conservative party lines and he and Thompson will face off again on Tuesday, November, 5 in the general election.
In the immediate aftermath of his primary loss – on the Democratic line in overwhelmingly Democratic Brooklyn – a stunned Hynes initially said that he would not campaign in the general election. In his primary concession speech he said, “I guess folks came to the conclusion that it was my time” and he promised a “smooth transition” to a Thompson administration. Though his name would appear on the ballot in November, he said that he would not “actively” seek reelection. It seemed as though he was effectively dropping out of the race.
Newspapers began issuing Hynes’ epitaph. The New York Times ran an article titled, “For Hynes, History of Making Brooklyn Safer Wasn’t Enough to Survive”. The New York Daily News wrote: “Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’ 23-year run as the borough’s top prosecutor has come to an end following his stunning defeat in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.”
But all of that changed on October 3, when the New York Times reported that Hynes had changed his mind and that he would run as a Republican because he believed that the Democratic primary might have swung his way if more Democrats had turned out to vote.
Though he lost to Thompson by 10 points at the Democratic primary, the general election could be a different story if Hynes can win a solid portion of the Republican and Independent vote (which makes up roughly 10% and 16% of the voting population in Brooklyn, respectively).
With the New York City mayor’s race looking like it may turn out to be a rout – polls show Democrat Bill de Blasio is leading Republican Joe Lhota by 40 points – the Brooklyn DA race is poised to become this year’s headline race in New York City.
It has been more than 100 years since an incumbent District Attorney was voted out of office in Brooklyn. So why do voters seem to be turning against Hynes, the once popular D.A?
1. Wrongful Convictions and Prosecutorial Misconduct
Over the course of the last five years, numerous high-profile cases have come to light that implicate Hynes’ office in prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions.
Here’s a quick review of some of the most notable cases:
- Jabbar Collins: Collins was found guilty in 1995 of shooting his landlord, Rabbi Abraham Pollack . He spent 16 years in prison until his release in 2010. A federal judge found evidence that Hynes’s office had relied on false testimony and coerced witnesses to win a conviction against Collins. Collins is currently suing Hynes’s office for $150 million and passed a high bar earlier this year when a federal judge allowed the suit to proceed.
- William Lopez: A federal judge threw out Lopez’s conviction in January, calling the Brooklyn prosecutors in the case “overzealous and deceitful” and the case itself “rotten from day one.” The main evidence against Lopez was the testimony of a drug addict who gave inconsistent statements that Hynes’s prosecutors withheld from defense attorneys. The witness later said that prosecutors coerced her to testify against Lopez by threatening her with prison time. Lopez spent half his life in prison before he was exonerated.
- David Ranta: A New York judge threw out Ranta’s conviction for a 1990 robbery that ended in the murder of a Brooklyn Rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger, because police coached witnesses and mishandled evidence. Though it was Hynes’ own Conviction Integrity Unit that brought the case before the court, The New York Times suggested that Hynes was himself privy to some of the unethical conduct going on at the time of Ranta’s trial and ought to have investigated the case much sooner.
- Ruddy Quezada: Quezada was convicted of second-degree murder in 1993 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The only eyewitness to testify at Quezeda’s trial later said that he didn’t see anything on the night of the murder and only agreed to testify against Quezeda because Hynes’s office used a material witness order to detain and threaten him. Though the Hynes’s office denied this claim for nearly a decade, prosecutors finally turned over evidence to the contrary in 2011 without explanation or apology. A federal court is now deciding whether to grant a hearing to examine Quezada’s innocence claim. Quezeda has spent 20 years in prison.
- Ronald Bozeman: Bozeman is suing the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office for $16 million following his wrongful convictions for robbery and kidnapping, which were thrown out earlier this year. Bozeman is suing the New York Police Department and Hynes’s office for “generating false evidence and ignoring evidence of his innocence.”
2. Failure to Take Responsibility for Unethical Behavior
At the center of many of the above-mentioned controversies have been two key figures: Detective Louis Scarcella, whose unethical practices in the Ranta case spurred Hynes to launch an internal review of 50 cases that the detective worked on; and Assistant District Attorney Michael Vecchione, who was the lead prosecutor in the Jabbar Collins case and many other high-profile, controversial cases.
Hynes has faced criticism for the way he has dealt with both Scarcella and Vecchione, but for different reasons.
In the case of Scarcella, commentators have expressed concern that Hynes has not gone far enough in reviewing the role of prosecutors in those cases where Scarcella is alleged to have mishandled evidence, coerced witnesses or elicited false statements. They suggest that a thorough review of the cases involving Scarcella ought to also include a review of the work done by prosecutors who supervised his work. ProPublica pointed out that the assistant DA that Hynes put in charge of overseeing the investigation of Scarcella was at the DA’s office when Scarcella was working on murder cases in Brooklyn and himself “handled murder cases when Scarcella was at his busiest.” However, Hynes has not agreed to review the work of his own prosecutors in addition to the work of Scarcella.
In the case of Vecchione, Hynes has faced criticism for not holding the long-time prosecutor accountable for his misconduct in the Jabbar Collins case and other cases. Eastern District Judge Frederick Block was openly disturbed by Hynes’ apparent reluctance to address Vecchione’s behavior, telling a city lawyer at a pre-trial hearing, “Hynes hasn’t treated it seriously, has he? What has he done? Name one thing he’s done in light of Vecchione’s aberrational behavior.” Nonetheless, both in and out of court, Hynes has stood by his right hand man, rewarding him time and time again despite judges’ concerns about Vecchione’s impropriety.
3. Criticism Over Handling of Child Sex-Abuse Cases Involving the Orthodox Jewish Community
In May, 2012 the New York Times published a damning article about Hynes’s alleged lack of vigor in pursuing child sex-abuse allegations in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. In particular, the Times suggested the Hynes knew that ultra-Orthodox leaders were instructing adherents that they “could report allegations of child sex abuse to district attorneys or the police only if a rabbi first determined that the suspicions were credible.” This appeared to leave child rape victims at the mercy of powerful religious leaders who may have had incentives to cover up those crimes. Nevertheless, Hynes, the Times alleged, knew about this challenge to his authority and maintained close relationships to those leaders – in part because he relied on these ultra-Orthodox rabbis for political support.
Even after establishing a program to reach out to ultra-Orthodox victims of child sexual abuse, Hynes took what the Times called an “unusual step” to keep secret the names of defendants his office prosecuted and convicted under the program – a policy he did not apply to defendants from any other community.
The Times points out that Hynes has “never publicly opposed the ultra-Orthodox Jewish position that a rabbi must first determine that an accusation of child sexual abuse is valid before the authorities are notified.”
Hynes has taken steps to address criticisms of his leadership, such as creating the program for child victims of sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community and a Conviction Integrity Unit to address the spate of wrongful convictions in cases prosecuted his office. On the other hand, critics say that he long tolerated unethical behavior. It looks like the election next Tuesday may be a close one.