Robert Morgenthau, Icon of NY-Style ‘Law & Order,’ Dead at 99

MANHATTAN (CN) – Robert Morgenthau battled against organized crime by indicting more than 100 accused mafiosos. He put the assassin of Beatles frontman John Lennon behind bars for 20-to-life, and for nearly a century he served New York City as one of its most storied prosecutors.

Just 10 days shy of his 100th birthday, Morgenthau died Sunday inside the Upper East Side’s Lenox Hill Hospital.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau listens during an interview at his office in New York, Dec. 16, 2009, as he prepares to step down after 35 years as DA. As Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor for eight years before being elected as the borough’s DA in 1974, Morgenthau, 90, symbolized the criminal justice system for generations of New Yorkers, not to mention viewers of “Law & Order.” (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Successors of Morgenthau among state and federal prosecutors celebrated his life and mourned his loss.

“Mr. Morgenthau’s contributions to law enforcement and to the Southern District of New York were extraordinary,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said. “Among his many achievements during his tenure as U.S attorney, Mr. Morgenthau created the Securities Fraud Unit and helped establish the framework for sophisticated, international investigations that still guides our career prosecutors.” 

The New York Times estimated that the Southern District recovered more than $1 billion from fines, settlements and forfeitures in the late 1990s during Morgenthau’s final five years as a U.S. attonrey.

“Whether he was charging landmark public corruption or organized crime cases, Mr. Morgenthau worked tirelessly to instill public confidence in the integrity of the office,” Berman added.

Morgenthau carried the rare distinction of having worked as both federal and state prosecutor, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance also heaped praised upon his predecessor as a man of “unimpeachable integrity, unflinching courage, unyielding independence, and fierce devotion to equal justice under the law.”

“His crime-fighting strategies also played an important role in facilitating New York City’s remarkable decline in homicides and violent crime – and its current status as America’s safest big city,” said Vance, who had served as one of Morgenthau’s assistants.

Another assistant, Sonia Sotomayor, went on to become a Second Circuit judge and Supreme Court justice.

For his acolytes and his critics, Morgenthau represented a storied brand of New York criminal justice. He reportedly inspired the TV series “Law & Order,” and that gritty portrayal of New York courts received more critical treatment in the Emmy-winning Netflix series “When They See Us,” based on the case of five teenagers exonerated after years in prison for the 1989 rape of Trisha Meili, a white jogger in Central Park.

Though Morgenthau admitted error far earlier than his contemporaries in the case — one of New York City’s most iconic miscarriages of justice — celebrated defense attorney Ron Kuby told The Times in 2016 that the city’s jails and prisons were brimming with black and Latino New Yorkers when Morgenthau was at the helm.

“Robert Morgenthau’s tenure almost precisely tracked the era of mass incarceration,” said Kuby, who represented one of the five defendants known today as the Central Park Five. “He was the dean and he could have used his moral authority to change that trajectory, and he was silent. He was an active contributor to mass incarceration.”

In coverage rife with racist and dehumanizing imagery, tabloids at the time used Meili’s attack to fuel panic of “wilding” black and Latino “wolf packs.”

Then-real estate tycoon Donald Trump helped fan that public outrage after the wrongful arrests of Antron McRay, Raymond Santana Jr., Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam. In a full-page New York Daily News ad, Trump called for the teens to be executed before even going to trial, blaring in all caps to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.

It was Morgenthau who brought the case but the prosecutor later reversed himself after DNA evidence proved there was a different perpetrator: convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes. Other colleagues of Morgenthau meanwhile have refused to admit their mistakes. His assistant Linda Fairstein continues to insist she made the right call, as does Trump.

The legacy of the Central Park Five case far outlasted Morgenthau’s retirement in 2009, as the subject of a documentary, a TV miniseries, and a civil suit that ended in a $41 million settlement.

Vance, who replaced him, noted that Morgenthau also left a lasting imprint on the 2,000 prosecutors he hired.

“‘The Boss,’ as he known by staff, was also revered for the genuine interest he took in people’s lives,” Vance said. “His guidance launched the careers of a remarkable number of highly influential public servants, including governors, attorney generals, judges, district attorneys, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. As such, his impact will live on for generations not only at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office but throughout the American legal system.”

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