In his years as a prosecutor, Charles J. Hynes has racked up convictions against organized crime families, corrupt police officers, fraudulent nursing home operators and, in his most celebrated case, a gang of youths charged with the 1987 Howard Beach racial murder. He was elected district attorney of Brooklyn in 1989. Representing the city’s largest Jewish population, Hynes — who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor — has since presided over controversial cases such as the kidnapping trial of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans and the 1991 Crown Heights murder trial of Lemrick Nelson. Although Hynes failed to secure a conviction in the latter case, he vigorously pursued federal authorities to take up the case. The federal civil rights trial ultimately resulted in Nelson’s conviction for violating the civil rights of Yankel Rosenbaum. “I said a murderer walks the streets of Brooklyn,” Hynes recalled. “It’s a disgrace and there should be a federal inquiry.”
In his last run for statewide office in 1994, Hynes came in third in the Democratic primary for attorney general. “I decided it was a good idea for me to run the campaign,” says Hynes. “It was a dumb idea.”
His platform calls for a greater emphasis on drug treatment for nonviolent offenders, declaring domestic violence a public health issue, creation of partnerships between small, high-tech business and the academic community to spur job growth, and efforts to repeal the death penalty. He has raised about $600,000 for this year’s campaign, and won 28 percent of delegates’ votes at the state Democratic nominating convention in May.
In an interview with reporters and editors of The Jewish Week, Hynes spoke about statewide issues and his relationship with the Jewish community. “I think [after] Howard Beach they saw someone who had more than a talking interest in civil rights,” he said. “When I took office there was only one frum kid, now we have five minyanim [worth]” in the DA’s office.
Following are highlights of the one-hour interview:
Jewish Week: As a prosecutor, what are your differences with the current governor on crime issues?
Hynes: He’s making the same mistake the former governor made. He’s building warehouses of despair and filling them significantly with nonviolent drug addicts at an incredible cost to the people of this state. He has fouled up a tremendous opportunity to bring stability back to the state by not applying the [current budget surplus] to debt service reduction. So my complaint with George Pataki is that he has not had any kind of experience that guides him in the way in which you approach the criminal justice system. I wasn’t a firefighter. But when I became fire commissioner [in 1980] I was smart enough to listen to pros. Every job I’ve ever had I’ve always hired people a hell of a lot brighter than I am and I never get worried about it. I challenge them; do it better, tell me where I’m wrong. [Pataki’s] own budget people say that in the next two fiscal years we’ll have a $2.7 billion deficit and a $5 billion deficit. What [state Comptroller Carl] McCall and some of the independent budget officers have said is that it’s a hell of a lot higher. So when you look at criminal justice and the way in which he wastes money in this budget, he cuts money for schools’ construction, he keeps money in for $180 million new prison facility. What’s the point of it?
To what do you attribute the decrease in crime statewide in the past few years?It was [former Mayor] David Dinkins’ convincing the Legislature to give us money for cops, and it was [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani’s election and his understanding that we needed a tough pro like Bill Bratton. … So public safety was reduced and began to be reduced two years before Pataki ever raised his right hand. What he doesn’t talk about however is that in 32 counties in our state, principally the rural counties, crime has been rising over the last two years, and violent crimes, and there has been no strategy put in place to contain that.
You have been an ardent opponent of the death penalty, yet you have pursued it in more cases than any other DA in the state. How do you explain this?
I’ve had more capital-eligible cases than anyone by far. [Manhattan DA] Bob Morgenthau has had 12. Dick Brown [DA of Queens] has had eight or nine. I’ve had 28, 29 … Look, I’m a frum goy, everyone knows I daven every morning, but I never intrude with my moral principles.
As DA, it’s my obligation to follow the law … I’ll give the death penalty supporters one concession. It is certainly an example of society asserting its right to show its outrage at the loss of a human being. My argument is that if you want to do that then capital punishment is an oxymoron. It is not punishment to someone who has destroyed the life of a human being and destroyed the family that remains to put a needle in his arm. Punishment is what [mobster John] Gotti gets, every day 23 and a half hours in a small cell. He’ll be there till he dies. It’s [also] cheaper. Can you explain your reasoning in the Helbrans case, why you were hesitant to prosecute?
Well, I spent lots of time speaking to groups of rabbis that the child [Shain Fhima] had to be brought back. And I wasn’t interested in prosecuting anyone if the child was [returned]. We prosecuted. I put one of the best lawyers in the office, tried the case. The plea you’re referring to, the judge beat me up in 1994 for accepting it. I thought the plea was adequate. I didn’t think this guy should go to jail. I think that what he did was misguided. It was definitely kidnapping; he was ultimately convicted of kidnapping. [Helbrans] was misguided by a kind of zealotry. And if I had a reaction to the Helbrans verdict, I could not understand some of the rabbis that are friends of mine making a case for him. I kept saying … bring the kid back to me, we’ll bring the child to Family Court and we’ll have an assessment.
Do you find that people hold the Lemrick Nelson verdict against you?
I see no residual animosity. I just spoke at a Lubavitcher dinner in Crown Heights and I was very well received. Everyone knows I was the one at the forefront battling with Janet Reno to get a federal inquiry. Al D’Amato deserves credit. Chuck Schumer deserves credit. But I was the one who sat across the conference table with her. Among the African American community, I have a good base there, they like me. Ultimately they know I tried to be fair throughout that investigation — [and] that I answered, God did I answer, meeting after meeting on how come the drunken Jewish guys weren’t prosecuted. I had to go through all of those lies. [The driver] went to the hospital, there was a 0.0 [alcohol] reading, if the cops didn’t get them out of there, they might have been hurt, killed. So I didn’t see any residual problems in either one of those communities.
Do you have any regrets about the way the trial was handled?
I regret that it was tried at the time, there was no way of getting a postponement, there was no way of saying let’s wait for the Rodney King case. If the case had been tried after the [federal retrial of the Rodney King police officers] I think we would have won.
Do you feel there is a need for campaign finance reform?
First of all, you’ve got to do away with soft money [funds given to political parties to support a candidate]. No soft money can be transferred to a political campaign, and you can’t advertise with soft money. Democrats are as guilty as Republicans in this. … I think the city finance reform makes sense [and] the federal way of raising money makes sense. If you prohibit bundling in corporations, $1,000 should be enough. How do you feel about the latest rejection of the Kiryas Joel special school district?
I would keep saying to the religious leaders in that area of Rockland County, it’s enough, you know, how many times do you have to be told? It also engenders a kind of anger, if not hatred toward [Jews].Some critics in the Orthodox community say that during your prosecution of nursing homeowners in the 1970s, a disproportionate number of convictions were Orthdodox Jews. Your answer?
A headline in the Jewish Press called me anti-Semitic. I was devastated. I grew up in an 84-family apartment house, the only two goyishe families were my family and the super, and it was devastating to be called an anti-Semite. I went to school with anti-Semites. I despised anti-Semitism … In New York City the [nursing home] ownership was in the hands, disproportionately it seemed, of Orthodox Jews. And once you got outside New York City, the longest prison sentence in the nursing home investigation was an Italian. He got 10 years. We had a worse problem. We had [Eugene] Hollander and that was a problem because he was a Holocaust survivor. I went to Simon Wiesenthal to talk about … whether a Holocaust survivor simply because of his experience should be taken off, look for some immunity … And he said someone who steals … and hides behind the Holocaust defames the memory of survivors and those who died, and should be isolated.