INTERVIEW: Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes Seeks a Seventh Term

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes during an interview at Hamodia on Wednesday.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes during an interview at Hamodia on Wednesday.

The race for Brooklyn district attorney in many quarters is nearly as closely watched as the looming mayoral campaign.

Charles Joseph Hynes, having been in office since Jan. 1, 1990, is coming full circle, with several of his initiatives related to the Orthodox community from 20 years ago back in the news as he seeks a historic seventh term. His challenger, Kenneth Thompson, a former federal prosecutor who has never run for office before, hopes to revamp the office if he wins, with a stronger focus on civil rights and preventing police brutality.

Both came to Hamodia for interviews ahead of the Democratic primary on Sept. 10 — Hynes to discuss his accomplishments during his long tenure, explain some of his controversial positions, and outline his vision for the future; Thompson, to describe his personal and professional background, to convince voters to dump his opponent, as well as to share his  ambitions.

The Brooklyn-born and raised Hynes, 78, has developed a delicate but close relationship with the Orthodox community over his 23 years in office, which more often than not was nurtured away from the media cameras. A white official in a borough which is increasingly turning predominately black, he nevertheless claims strong support in that community.

Thompson says he wants to “clean up the mess” left by Hynes, by helping end the stop-question-and-frisk police tactic credited by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for bringing down crime to record lows. In the interview, he repeatedly attacked Hynes but said he would review all Hynes’s innovations and would keep the useful ones if elected.

Hynes started off the interview by asking that we “please be blunt,” and we were. He presented statistics showing an 83 percent reduction in violent crimes over his time in office, and social policies he put in place to help offenders before they become career criminals. He discussed his office’s transparency, as well as his willingness to go back to old cases for review, prepared for some hard-won reversals in order to ensure that justice is ultimately dispensed.

This is your first race that really is competitive.

Not the way I see it, no. My most competitive race was in 2005, because it’s not a good idea to indict the county chairman of your party. I indicted Clarence Norman, Jr., who was a serial thief, and three of his corrupt judges. And they came after me with everything they had. So, had they moved 2-1/2 percentage points I would have been gone. But I survived; I won by five points, and then got reelected in ’09 without any competition. I must say this: I am bewildered by the fact that everybody in the media thinks this is a competitive race.

I haven’t seen any polls, but your opponent has a nice amount of union and black support.

He’s had some union support. The black community, by and large, is mine. Every black assemblymember, every black state senator, every black councilmember, all of the black district leaders, all support me. Thompson has got [Rep.] Hakeem Jeffries, because they’re long-time friends, [Rep.] Yvette Clark, for reasons I can’t understand, any more than I can understand why [Rep.] Jerry Nadler got involved in this race, or [Rep.] Nydia Velazquez. And he has [Councilman] Charles Barron. So he has nothing like the broad-based support I have in central Brooklyn, which is why I don’t see where his traction is. I think he’s going to get some parts of the frum Jewish community, but I think a small part. I think that I’ll get the majority, as I always have.

But I must tell you this: I learned a long time ago, you always run scared. You don’t take anything for granted. And that’s what I’ve been doing.

Let’s go to the Conviction Integrity Unit. Several people who have served years in prison were released when new evidence came to light.

(Ed: Hynes described how he set up the Conviction Integrity Unit, under the direction of John O’Mara, which helped gain the release after 17 years of David Ranta, the only person convicted in the murder of Rabbi Chatzkel Wercberger, Hy”d, the shamash of the Satmar shul in Williamsburg. Ranta “was convicted on the basis of overwhelming evidence,” according to the appellate court, a finding which was seconded by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.)

But John is a bulldog. He’s a guy who does not give up. And he kept on pressing the lawyer for Ranta, “Give me more information so I can make sure I know what I’m doing.” There came a point where he reviewed the procedures followed by a Detective Louie Scarcella, and the information he received about other witnesses, and came to me and said, “We no longer have a viable criminal case against David Ranta. He is being held wrongfully.”

I then directed my chief investigator to dispatch two detectives up to the institution where Ranta was being held, with a court order, got him released, put him back to Brooklyn Supreme Court, set aside the conviction and dismissed the indictment.

Now, as a result of my concern about Scarcella’s action, I decided, after speaking to my senior staff, that we should take a look at all of his trial convictions to see if there are any similarities between the way the Ranta case was handled. And that led to a review of 38 cases involving 51 defendants.

At any time during the panel’s review process, if we find that there’s another person who has been wrongly convicted as a result of Scarcella, we will immediately dispatch detectives to release that person.

I have a couple questions about the Ranta case. Number one: This took place almost immediately into your first term. The family said they were convinced before and after the trial that Ranta was just an accomplice, not the triggerman. They feel that you just wanted to have a conviction to calm the community.

You know, there’s nothing that I could respond to the family who has lost someone in a tragedy who feels that way. But that is not the facts. I don’t run my office like that. I have never made a decision based on a political reason or based on any other reason other than my obligation to tzedek tzedek tirdof. That’s my obligation.

Whatever thefamily feels, the facts are that the distinguished judges who reviewed that said he was guilty. Now, as it turns out, because of the doggedness of John O’Mara, we were able to develop information that showed that he was not legally guilty by the time we had finished our inquiry.

There were another few cases of people being released on new evidence. What percentage of your overall convictions were overturned?

Good, I’m glad you’re asking this question. In the nearly 24 years I’ve been DA of this county, with ultimate responsibility of hundreds of thousands of cases, I have been accused of wrongful convictions in two cases, by three federal judges. Obviously I don’t have specific decision-making in each and every case; there’s too many cases. But in all of the most important cases, I have the major decision role.

I am the only prosecutor in this state who, since 1993, has had a policy of open-file discovery, which means in misdemeanor cases, after an arraignment on a misdemeanor in criminal court, my assistants are required to give copies of their file to the defense lawyers. Two years later I extended that to felony cases.

That is the kind of transparency that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the state.

Two cases were overturned out of…?

Maybe two million cases.

Parts of the community are upset because of a recent high-profile case.

I’ve explored that case with a number of members of that community and had a good, tough give-and-take. And I told them in very straight terms why I believe the defendant was convicted. I fully expect to get the vast majority of that community.

That case came right after the Times’ and Daily News’ articles accusing you of not releasing information on abuse in the Orthodox community. Did timing have anything to do with it?

Let me explore that with you,  because there’s a factual basis that has to be understood. First of all, we are not the only county with a significant percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews. There’s also Orange County and Rockland County in the northern suburbs of the city, and Dade County in Miami, as well as L.A. County.

In the first 19 years I was district attorney, despite the fact that I knew of many [abuse] allegations, neither I nor the other four district attorneys of those jurisdictions I’ve mentioned, all of whom I know personally, all of whom I know to be very capable DAs, none of us were able to mount any serious challenges. Because as soon as a member of the community was identified by arrest, there would be a relentless search to try and find who the victim was.

And then all of the shunning started — people barred from synagogues, kids being thrown out of yeshivah school, not being allowed to go to summer camp, losing the right to have arranged marriages. All of those factors, all of that intimidation led to the reality that the case would fall apart. And that’s the way the cases fell apart in Orange, Rockland, Dade and L.A. County.

So, after many discussions with Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the Board of Jewish Family and Children Services, and with Ohel, three very well respected social service Orthodox agencies, we created the policy called Kol Tzedek, as you know, in Hebrew, “the Voice of Justice.”

The main component of Voice of Justice was that we were able to use the vast communication network of emails, newsletters, magazines, telephone contacts of these three social service agencies, getting the message to victims, potential victims and their families: If you are a victim of abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community, do not go to the police department. Come directly to us, to a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline which is staffed by Orthodox Jewish social workers who work for me.

Having this direct connection led to the kind of information we received to help us prosecute. The one final condition to Kol Tzedek was that we would not identify the defendant upon the arrest, not until he went to court the following day. Once in court he became part of the public record. And the reason we did that was to be able to have our protective services surround the victim and their family so they would feel comfortable, and then offer them all of the services necessary — social services, for example, through our social workers.

That led to 86 indictments by the time the Times wrote its two-part series.

(Ed: Hynes spoke extensively how in the Times’ orginal reporting they wrote that the number 86 was “obviously … inflated,” but he later proved via other media outlets, and eventually, their own reporter, that the number was accurate.)

So it had nothing to do with the Times.

You were quoted saying that the Orthodox community is worse than the Mafia.

That was not only a wrong thing to say, an unfortunate thing to say, it was an insensitive thing to say. Now, ordinarily, I’m pretty sensitive. And what I said was insensitive, and I’ve apologized. I had a group of my friends in Williamsburg recently and I apologized to them. And I apologize to your readership. I should not have said that.

Could you tell me what you meant?

What I meant by it was, the mob typically intimidates witnesses. But it was inappropriate, insensitive and unnecessary.

Do you believe that your opponent is bad for the Jewish community?

I believe that I answer the historic question — is he good for the Jews? — in the affirmative. I’ve proven in 23 years I’m a very good friend of not only the Jewish community, and the broad spectrum, from the frum to the secular, but to all communities. Because I have a very strong community relations base. Everybody knows who Hanna White is. She represents my eyes and ears in the broad spectrum of the Jewish community, and I have similar people in the Caribbean community, the Russian community.

So, do I think Ken Thompson is bad for the Jews? I don’t think Ken Thompson would be good for the Jews.

Very specifically, at his press conference, Councilman Greenfield said Ken Thompson would target the Jews. He later tweeted, “Don’t walk to the polls, run to the polls.” And you stood by without comment.

I stood by because someone I respect said that he was at two different meetings where Thompson spoke out of both sides of his mouth.

I have now debated Ken Thompson three times. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he will say anything and do anything, irrespective of the truth, or irrespective of ethical consideration. And so is he capable of saying something like that? I would tend to believe that.

If you win the election, do you have plans for any new innovations?

(Ed: Hynes discussed four plans for the future: expanding a prisoner reentry program that has cut the percentage of them returning to crime by as much as two thirds, urging the City Council to restore community courts that have already proved successful in Red Hook and Brownsville, allowing some women prisoners to serve their sentences at home to better care for their children, and expanding his office to include prosecuting Medicare fraud, a federal crime which is rarely prosecuted.)

How large a staff do you have?

Currently I have 500 lawyers. And with the healthcare fraud division it will increase by 50 lawyers.

But look: Make no mistake about it, I’m not going to be there forever. But those are four goals that I want to achieve in the next four years.

And then what I’ve got to do at some point is to try and find someone who feels like I do about criminal justice, and understands as I do that the easiest thing I do is put people in prison; that the real struggle is trying to prevent people from getting in trouble in the first place. And once they get in trouble, to try and get prevention programs to divert them out. And then finally the reentry program.

When I’m able to establish someone who I can feel comfortable with, then it will be time for me to move on. And I’m going to move on to do some other job. Retirement is not in my DNA.

Are you actively grooming a successor?

Now, you know the words “no comment”?

So anyway, that’s the plan. And I only hope that people in Brooklyn will appreciate the fact that we’ve had an 80% reduction in violent crime over the 23 years that I’ve been DA. We’ve had an 83% reduction in murders. Brooklyn used to be the fifth most violent place in America, per capita. I don’t want to sugar-coat things, but we’re on the road to where we should be.