Manhattan DA to step down

February 27, 2009 5:50:02 PM PST
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau announced Friday that he will step down at the end of the year and not run for another term, saying "enough is enough" after a five-decade career that made him a New York icon and one of the nation's most high-profile prosecutors. Morgenthau will turn 90 in July and noted that he will have worked 25 years beyond normal retirement age.

"Some people are slow to learn. It took me a long time to realize I was getting older," he said at a news conference with his wife at his side, adding that he is in good health.

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His wife often repeated questions from reporters because he is hard of hearing. But he was upbeat throughout the news conference as he pondered life as a retiree: "I don't know what I'll do. I got an e-mail from my older brother who said this is a bad time to be looking for a job."

Morgenthau has served as a prosecutor in New York City since the Kennedy administration, when he was appointed as Manhattan's top federal prosecutor by his good friend, President John F. Kennedy.

He became the borough's top state prosecutor in 1974 and has been there ever since.

It is the busiest and most prominent district attorney's office in the nation, with a nearly 500 assistant prosecutors and nearly 3.5 million cases moving through his office in his 35 years.

During his tenure, Morgenthau has gone after murderous mobsters, corrupt CEOs and misbehaving celebrities. Tall and distinguished in appearance, he was the model for the original prosecutor on "Law and Order," the long-running TV drama that features fictionalized versions of cases handled by Morgenthau's office.

The reaction to his retirement was swift, from the nation's capital to the statehouse to law firms around the city.

"District Attorney Morgenthau was once referred to as 'D.A. for life,"' said Asssembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is from Manhattan. "He is without doubt the finest and most accomplished district attorney in our nation's history, a devoted family man and a hero to our great city."

Morgenthau was elected for the eighth time in 2005, turning back a challenge from Leslie Crocker Snyder, a popular former state judge who tried without success to turn his age and lengthy tenure into campaign issues.

Crocker Snyder is viewed as one of the front-runners in the November election, along with former Morgenthau assistant Cyrus R. Vance Jr. and a current deputy, Daniel Castleman.

"I wish Mr. Morgenthau well. He has been a great institution for New York, and I hope he is happy in the next phase of his life," Crocker Snyder said. "I've been actively running, and I will be running."

Morgenthau refused to discuss who might be his successor or say what cases were among his proudest accomplishments.

In his position at the forefront of Manhattan's legal and political scene, Morgenthau cultivated a dignified, above-the-fray presence, and was widely acknowledged by allies and foes alike as effective, nonpartisan and incorruptible.

He also hired young lawyers such as John F. Kennedy Jr., Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo to work as assistant prosecutors.

His office boasted a strong conviction rate, although it wasn't perfect. A jury cleared John Gotti during one of his many brushes with the law in the 1980s, and Sean Combs was acquitted in a gun case earlier this decade.

Morgenthau's notable convictions as district attorney included a crack dealer who murdered the son of AOL Time-Warner head Gerald Levin; the murderous mother-and-son grifter team, Sante and Kenneth Kimes; seven youths who killed a Utah tourist in a subway mugging in 1990; and L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former Tyco CEO sent to prison after a lengthy corporate theft trial.

He also prosecuted Bernhard Goetz in the 1984 wounding of four black youths who tried to rob him on a subway train, in a case that became symbolic of vigilante justice during the crime-ridden 1980s.

He also jailed Robert Chambers Jr. in what became known as the "Preppie Killer case."

One of the most sensational prosecutions handled by his office was the Central Park jogger case. Thirteen years after a female jogger was attacked in the infamous gang "wilding" spree, Morgenthau asked a judge in 2002 to throw out the convictions of five men because DNA evidence and another man's confession put them into question.

Morgenthau was born in 1919 into a wealthy, prominent New York family. His grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was U.S. ambassador to Turkey during World War I, and his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was secretary of the treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a family friend.

His childhood reflected his lineage. Morgenthau had a lifelong friendship with members of the Kennedy clan; he once cooked hot dogs with Eleanor Roosevelt for Great Britain's King George VI; on another occasion he prepared a mint julep for Winston Churchill.

In 1960, Morgenthau campaigned in New York for his friend and fellow Democrat, John F. Kennedy. The next year, the new president named him to the prestigious post of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. He served in that office through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Not everyone was full of praise about Morgenthau.

"I haven't felt so bad since Nixon resigned," defense lawyer Ronald Kuby said, chuckling. "Morgenthau held the office longer than he should have. ... Of the five district attorneys (in New York City), his office was the most difficult to deal with." He said prosecutors from the office acted as though "we don't make mistakes."