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Queens Chronicle

Brown to leave mark as tough prosecutor

District attorney’s nearly 28-year tenure has admirers and critics

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Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2019 10:30 am

“Being a district attorney is a difficult job.”

Robert Morgenthau ought to know, having served as the chief prosecutor for the Borough of Manhattan from 1975 to 2009. He had been on the job for 16 years when Richard Brown accepted the appointment as Queens district attorney from the first Gov. Cuomo in 1991.

Morgenthau spoke on Tuesday, less than one week after Brown announced that he will retire at the end of his term on Dec. 31. Brown, through his office, declined to comment for this story, but Morgenthau offered a fond but direct assessment of the tenure of the man he said is both a colleague and a friend.

“Queens is going to miss him,” Morgenthau told the Chronicle. “I knew him when he was a judge, counsel to the governor and then as district attorney. He’s a dedicated public servant ... In many ways, we’re different, but Richard Brown has always tried to do the right thing. I have nothing but the highest regard for him as a public servant.”

Two of the most high-profile cases during Brown’s career in Queens also were the most controversial.

In 2002 his prosecutors secured the death penalty for John Taylor, the leader of what became known as the Wendy’s Massacre in which seven employees were tied up, robbed and shot execution-style in the Flushing fast-food restaurant’s walk-in freezer. Brown would call it the most gruesome crime scene he ever saw.

But two of the victims lived, including one who would testify against Taylor and accomplice Craig Godineaux. Godineaux was sentenced to life in prison. Taylor’s sentence was commuted to life with no hope of parole after new York’s Court of Appeals ruled the death penalty to be unconstitutional.

Brown’s office sought an exception in Taylor’s case, not surprising for a DA considered by his defenders to be a law-and-order prosecutor.

Critics, on the other hand, saw him as being too strict and rigid.

“I would respond to that by saying nobody can please everybody,” Morgenthau said.

But candidates running to take Brown’s place, including Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), are promising to prosecute fewer low-level crimes and abolish or greatly reduce the use of cash bail.

The shooting of Sean Bell by police officers in 2006 also put Brown’s office in the spotlight.

Bell, leaving a party at a strip club the night before he was going to be married, was killed in a fusillade of 50 NYPD bullets. Two others in the car were wounded.

Police alleged that Bell attempted to run an officer over with his vehicle. Officers also testified they heard members of Bell’s group mention getting or possessing a gun.

Brown’s office prosecuted NYPD Officers Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver on charges including manslaughter, and Det. Marc Cooper for reckless endangerment.

All three were acquitted in a bench trial.

Leroy Gadsden, president of the Jamaica Branch of the NAACP, has been a critic of Brown.

“We wish him well in retirement, and we do thank him for his public service, especially with respect to the sacrifices he made for the city’s well-being,” Gadsden said. “That said, I didn’t agree with some of his policies and how he handled some cases.”

Gadsden said Brown appeared disinclined to prosecute police officers over allegations of misconduct and police brutality.

He also has been a frequent critic of using plea bargains as a tool to delay grand jury indictments. Brown has been criticized for asking defendants to waive the six-day limit by threatening to refuse a plea bargain down the road if they did not.

“This is the only county in the state I know of where that is backed by the district attorney,” Gadsden said.

In 2014, the state’s top court ruled that the Queens DA’s office had violated the law by using pre-arraignment interviews with defendants before they were given their Miranda warnings against self-incrimination.

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