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NYC’s real ‘Law & Order’ DA retires at 90

90-year-old Robert Morgenthau, the inspiration for the district attorney on TV's "Law & Order," is finally retiring as  Manhattan district attorney.
Manhattan Prosecutor
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau retires on Thursday after 35 years in the job.Bebeto Matthews / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert Morgenthau has been cast in many roles during his decades in office.

The inspiration for the district attorney on TV's "Law & Order." A taker-on of mobsters, misbehaving celebrities and corrupt CEOs. A Democratic powerbroker who grew up among Roosevelts and Kennedys and helped launch careers, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's.

A local prosecutor who used his office's prominence to stretch the long arm of the law where he saw fit. A savvy, wry and indefatigable New York institution who happens to be 90.

In short, "DA for life."

But Morgenthau closes the curtain Thursday on his 35 years as Manhattan district attorney with little time for reminiscing. In the last week of his term, he was still holding news conferences to announce a flurry of prosecutions and guilty pleas.

"You think I'm going to go quietly?" he joked.

Morgenthau is stepping down from one of the nation's biggest and most prestigious prosecutor's offices, with about 500 lawyers handling 100,000 cases a year. As Manhattan's top federal prosecutor for eight years before being elected as the borough's DA in 1974, he symbolized the criminal justice system for generations of New Yorkers, not to mention TV viewers.

"Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf calls Morgenthau "the greatest district attorney in the history of New York" and used him as the template for pragmatic-but-principled DA Adam Schiff, played by actor Steven Hill in the series' first decade.

Sotomayor, one of Morgenthau's former assistant prosecutors, said in videotaped remarks for a recent event honoring him that he "set a standard of unparalleled prosecutorial excellence and integrity."

Morgenthau quipped in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he's retiring because, "I looked at my birth certificate, and I said, 'It's about time.'"

In other words, his departure, like his tenure, is very much on his own terms.

Morgenthau is hard of hearing and walks slowly but otherwise shows few symptoms of his age. He also remains a key player in the city's legal and political scenes. After handily defeating a former judge who tried to unseat him in 2005, Morgenthau helped his chosen successor, defense lawyer Cy Vance, beat the same jurist and a third contender this year. Vance, one of Morgenthau's assistant prosecutors in the 1980s, has pledged to build on Morgenthau's "outstanding legacy," though he already has shaken up the office's top staff.

Celebrity, mob cases
The caseload reads at times like an awards-show guest list: A single morning in 2007 brought rappers Busta Rhymes, Ja Rule and Remy Ma to court in separate cases.

In the last four months, Morgenthau's office charged a TV producer with trying to blackmail David Letterman, reached a plea deal with rapper Lil Wayne in a gun-possession case and put "Spider-Man" actress Kirsten Dunst on the witness stand in a trial involving the theft of her $2,000 handbag.

Over the years, Morgenthau's office also prosecuted mob boss John Gotti, acquitted on state charges of ordering a hit on a union official; former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski, convicted of fraud and larceny in a case seen as an emblem of corporate excess; and vigilante subway shooter Bernhard Goetz, acquitted of the shooting charges. The office also produced guilty pleas from "Preppie Killer" Robert Chambers Jr. and John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman.

Meanwhile, Morgenthau became known for pursuing sweeping financial crimes and other cases outside the purview of many other local prosecutors. He even once measured the distance from Yankee Stadium's home plate to the Bronx-Manhattan border to pursue a ticket-scalping probe under a state law giving district attorneys limited jurisdiction in neighboring counties.

Federal officials and others have suggested he overreached at times. But Morgenthau says he makes cases only when others don't, and he casts his pursuit of white-collar crime as a social imperative in the nation's financial capital.

"If you want to have a fair and impartial system, and you want people to respect the law, you have to investigate people who have positions of trust in the society and the economy," he said. "I think (financial) crimes are every bit as serious as the man with a gun."

Morgenthau's image — and influence — are such that it's hard to find critics, even among his natural adversaries: The state Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is honoring him at its annual dinner next month.

He faced questions about diversity in his office and attention to minority communities in the 1980s, culminating with public complaints in 1990 from a group of black legislators that included then-state Sen. David Paterson, now New York's governor.

In response, Morgenthau noted a rising number of minority prosecutors — 125 today, up from 11 when he took office. These days, Paterson praises him for "a life of great accomplishment and service that many of us can only hope to one day achieve in our own lives."

Defense lawyer Ron Kuby says Morgenthau's stature and tenure make his staff overconfident and says the office is loath to consider evidence of wrongful convictions.

"He's become the victim of his own myth, and the myth is that the (Manhattan) district attorney's office is special," Kuby said.

One of Morgenthau's former assistant DAs, Daniel Bibb, told The New York Times last year he felt prosecutors were so slow to acknowledge questions about the convictions of two men in the 1990 killing of a Palladium nightclub bouncer that he tacitly worked to help defense lawyers. The men spent more than a dozen years in prison before prosecutors dropped charges against one; the other was acquitted after a judge ordered a new trial.

In one of Morgenthau's most notorious cases, five men spent years in prison for the 1989 rape of a woman jogger in a Central Park "wilding" spree before DNA evidence and another man's confession prompted him to ask a judge to throw out the convictions in 2002.

Morgenthau says he regrets such cases.

"You just have to be alert, constantly alert, to perjury, to mistaken identity, but the system's not foolproof," he said. But, he said, "it's the best system around."

Morgenthau came from a prominent political family. His grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was an ambassador to Turkey; his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was secretary of the treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A decorated World War II veteran, Robert Morgenthau was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1962, losing to Republican Nelson Rockefeller; he unsuccessfully sought the nomination again in 1970.

Morgenthau says he hasn't decided what he'll do next. His interests include pressing for immunity from deportation for illegal immigrants who help in immigration-fraud cases.

Simply retiring, however, is out.

"I don't intend to sit on a park bench and vegetate," he said. "New York's been good to me and my family. I'm still in the payback stage."