Brooklyn these days may be the land of celebrities and high-priced real estate, but the borough is also reckoning with less glamorous aspects of its recent history. From 1990 until last year, then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes presided over a host of cases that produced wrongful convictions.
So far this year, six men have been exonerated, including five who went to prison during the high-crime era of the late 1980s to early ’90s. With 90 more cases currently under review, the ranks of the exonerated are almost certain to grow.
Unlike the notorious media frenzy that surrounded the Central Park Five in 1989, most of the Brooklyn cases now in question initially made no headlines. That Hynes was on rather friendly terms with many of the city’s leading reporters only partially explains this lack of oversight. The more enduring problem is that Brooklyn, home to 2.5 million people, continues to lack sufficient borough-wide news coverage.
Widely hailed as a reformer when he first took office, Hynes exited in disgrace at the end of his sixth term. During last year’s victorious campaign, new DA Ken Thompson capitalized on public outrage over Hynes’ handling of numerous cases, including many that have resulted in exonerations.
Such sentiment was in part driven by a stream of stories critical of Hynes found in nearly all citywide newspapers during the race. Columnist Michael Powell and three fellow New York Times reporters garnered a 2013 Polk Award for their stories that sparked into an inquiry into more than 50 cases (largely from the Hynes era) involving Brooklyn homicide detective Louis Scarcella, who reputedly coerced false confessions from accused criminals and witnesses.
But this media scrutiny was almost nonexistent early in Hynes’ time in office. He took the helm in 1990 with an impressive track record and plenty of connections in both the political and media worlds. Three years earlier, as special prosecutor in the Howard Beach case (appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo), Hynes had won convictions of the three main figures, all white, in the death of Michael Griffith, a black man.
In his first year in office, Hynes waged a high-profile prosecution of the white ringleaders in the Bensonhurst killing of Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American. That he succeeded in winning a second-degree murder conviction against only one of the participants caused Hynes to face the ire of Rev. Al Sharpton.
Yet being a foe of Sharpton during the Rev’s provocateur era only solidified Hynes’ bona fides in the eyes of many of the city’s leading liberals, including crusading journalists like the late Jack Newfield. A mainstay at the Village Voice from the mid-1960s through the late-’80s, Newfield was a columnist at the New York Post during most of Hynes’ first three terms, and his circle included many of the leading muckrakers in the city.
“I lionized Hynes,” confesses veteran reporter Ron Howell (aka “Brooklyn Ron”), who was at Newsday at the time. Such a sentiment is common among the many reporters I’ve spoken to about Hynes, who during his first term also established a reputation as a reformer by providing drug treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration.
Hynes, says Howell, helped his aunt settle a dispute with an unscrupulous contractor. And he points out that in general, Hynes made an effort “to cultivate his relationships with the press,” as illustrated by the fact that longtime Daily News crime reporter Jerry Schmetterer eventually became the DA’s press spokesman.
Another early Hynes ally, veteran police reporter Len Levitt, went in a different direction. “We had become pretty close when he was special prosecutor,” Levitt recalls. After getting elected, Hynes asked him be his press secretary, but the reporter declined.
Levitt remained friendly with other members of Hynes’ inner circle. And within a year or two after Hynes took office, it became clear to him that the DA “was bored and wanted to run for higher office.” While Hynes would indeed make an unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 1994, Levitt soon became a vocal critic, helping publicize evidence that became pivotal in the case of now-exonerated Jabbar Collins.
During the early ’90s, even as Hynes was cultivating his bases of media support and plotting his political future, he was also prosecuting several cases built on faulty foundations, including those of Collins, David Ranta, and Antonio Yarbough. But the failure of local journalists to report critically on these and other cases wasn’t entirely due to their cozy relationship with the DA.