NEW YORK (AP) — He seemed almost out of central casting — tall and patrician, with a cultivated above-the-fray presence. And in fact, former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau inspired some television casting of his own, as the model for the avuncular character of prosecutor Adam Schiff, played by actor Steven Hill on the long-running television series, “Law and Order.”
“Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf called Morgenthau “the greatest district attorney in the history of New York.”
Morgenthau, who died Sunday at 99, just 10 days before turning 100, spent nearly half his life jailing criminals from mob kingpins and drug-dealing killers to a tax-dodging Harvard dean.
He served as U.S. attorney for New York’s southern district during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, returned to law enforcement as Manhattan’s top state prosecutor in 1975 and held the job for 35 years, with his office handling around 100,000 criminal cases yearly.
He was 90 when he stepped down from office in 2009, throwing his support to his eventual successor, current District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
“I looked at my birth certificate, and I said, ‘It’s about time,'” Morgenthau told The Associated Press at the time of his retirement.
For all his successes winning convictions, Morgenthau also became known for presiding over an injustice, and then correcting it.
Thirteen years after his prosecutors sent five black and Hispanic teenagers to prison for the rape of a female jogger in what was originally described as a gang “wilding” spree, Morgenthau asked a judge in 2002 to throw out the convictions after DNA evidence and another man’s confession put them into question.
The “Central Park 5” were later paid $41 million for the time they wrongfully spent behind bars.
When asked in 2009 about the Central Park 5, Morgenthau said he regretted that wrongful convictions occur.
“You just have to be alert, constantly alert, to perjury, to mistaken identity, but the system’s not foolproof,” he said. But, he added, “it’s the best system around.”
In his position at the forefront of Manhattan’s legal and political scene, Morgenthau was widely acknowledged by allies and foes alike as effective, nonpartisan and incorruptible.
Under Morgenthau’s watch, Manhattan prosecutors took on many high-profile cases: political payoffs by mob boss Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo, the shooting of four black youths by white subway gunman Bernhard Goetz, the weapons-possession arrest of hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Combs was acquitted. Goetz was cleared of attempted murder charges but convicted of weapons possession in the 1984 wounding of four black youths he said were trying to rob him on a subway train.
Over the years, Morgenthau’s office also prosecuted mob boss John Gotti, acquitted on state charges of ordering a hit on a union official, and former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski, convicted of fraud and larceny in a case seen as an emblem of corporate excess. The office also produced guilty pleas from “Preppie Killer” Robert Chambers Jr. and John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman.
Morgenthau had claimed a 97% conviction rate while U.S. attorney, lost the Combs case, but in the late 1990s, his state DA’s office was winning guilty verdicts in three of four cases.
However, Morgenthau insisted that convictions weren’t everything.
“The prosecutor’s job is to protect the public and to administer the laws,” Morgenthau once said, deriding district attorneys who collected convictions like “notches on a gun.”
Morgenthau was born into a wealthy, prominent New York family. His grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was secretary of the treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a family friend.
Robert Morgenthau’s childhood reflected his lineage. He 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.
He joined the U.S. Navy one day after graduating from Amherst College in 1941 and spent 4 ½ years in the service during World War II, earning the rank of lieutenant commander while seeing action aboard destroyers in the Mediterranean and the Pacific.
After the war, Morgenthau earned a law degree from Yale and joined a New York law firm headed by former U.S. secretary of war Robert P. Patterson.
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, the nation’s busiest such office.
Morgenthau resigned after 17 months to run for governor against incumbent Republican Nelson Rockefeller. After his defeat in a disastrous campaign in 1962, Morgenthau was reappointed federal prosecutor by Kennedy.
Morgenthau developed a reputation for targeting white-collar criminals. In 1963, his office successfully prosecuted former Harvard law school dean James M. Landis for tax evasion.
Morgenthau was forced out as federal prosecutor in January 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon after months of resisting political pressure to resign. He briefly joined Mayor John Lindsay’s administration as a deputy mayor, then waged another losing gubernatorial race before leaving the public eye for the next four years, engaged in private law practice.
In 1974, Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan resigned due to health problems after 32 years on the job. Morgenthau then launched his first successful run for public office, assuming the post on Jan. 1, 1975.
Over the next quarter-century, Morgenthau was elected another seven times as head of one of the nation’s largest law offices, with 550 prosecutors and 700 other staffers. Among prominent figures who served in the office was the late John F. Kennedy Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Sotomayor said in a statement Monday that Morgenthau devoted himself to public service as few others do.
“Equally important, he mentored and guided so many, including me, to follow his example,” she said in a statement, calling him “a shining light in our constellation of good and decent people.”
Cuomo, a Democrat, said Monday that he still keeps on his desk his assistant district attorney’s badge from working for Morgenthau, “as a daily reminder of his unrelenting pursuit of justice.”
Another of Morgenthau’s former assistant prosecutors, Leslie Crocker Snyder, became a popular former state judge and ran against him in 2005.
Snyder mounted a vigorous campaign in which she pointed out that “Law & Order” had three district attorneys in 17 years on the air whereas Morgenthau had served alone for 30. The New York Times agreed that “three decades is more than enough time for any executive to accomplish his or her mission,” but that endorsement did not help Snyder overcome his advantage at the polls.
In 2005, at age 86, Morgenthau was elected for the eighth and last time.
Three weeks after retiring as district attorney, he took a job at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a New York law firm.
“Taking time off makes me nervous,” Morgenthau quipped at the time.
He remained “of counsel” — a term sometimes used for attorneys entering private practice at senior levels — until his death and worked on matters including immigration reform, veterans’ heath care and gun control, the firm said.
His civic work included a relationship with the Police Athletic League that dates to 1962, and his position as chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which opened in 1997.
Morgenthau was survived by his wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lucinda Franks, and seven children. His first wife, the former Martha Pattridge, died of cancer in 1972.
Larry McShane, a former staffer of The Associated Press, was the principal writer of this obituary. Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed.
This story has been corrected to show that Morgenthau became district attorney in 1975, not 1974.