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Robert Morgenthau (1919–2019), NYC district attorney prosecuted high-profile cases

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Morgenthau's office presided over cases including John Lennon's killer and the Central Park Five

Robert Morgenthau was the district attorney of Manhattan from 1975 to 2009, the borough’s longest-serving DA who presided over cases that made nationwide news. Morgenthau became renowned for being tough on crime, taking down murderers, mobsters, and shady politicians alike. The high-profile defendants prosecuted under his supervision include Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon in 1981; Bernard Goetz, the “Subway Vigilante” who shot four black men he claimed were threatening him; and Robert Chambers, the “Preppie Killer” who killed a young woman in Central Park. In the notorious Central Park Jogger case, Morgenthau first convicted five young men of assaulting and raping a woman in Central Park, sending all five to jail. Thirteen years later, with a confession from a sixth man, Morgenthau reopened the investigation and used DNA evidence to exonerate them after they had all served prison sentences. Prior to being elected District Attorney, Morgenthau had also served as U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York and run unsuccessfully for governor of New York.

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Died: July 21, 2019 (Who else died on July 21?)

Details of death: Died at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan after a short illness at the age of 99.


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Reflected on the small screen: Morgenthau was so well known in New York City — and across the country, thanks to the many cases that put his office in the news — that he inspired an iconic television character. District Attorney Adam Schiff on the long-running drama “Law & Order” was loosely based on Morgenthau. Steven Hill (1922–2016) portrayed Schiff for 10 seasons, from 1990 to 2000.

Morgenthau on his approach to fighting crime: “My theory was prompt and certain arrest, prosecution and punishment. If you commit a crime, the chances of you being arrested were pretty good. And you’d be prosecuted promptly. I didn’t believe in long sentences. Crime came down all over, but it came down much more in Manhattan than any other place in the city of state. We went from being the No. 1 borough for murders to No. 4. I never claimed credit for the drop in crime, because I thought if crime goes back up they can blame me. So I never stuck my neck out.” —from a 2016 interview with the New York Times

What people said about him: “This is terribly sad. Robert Morgenthau. Former SDNY US Attorney and Manhattan DA, was an unparalleled patriot, veteran, prosecutor, public servant. He gave his whole life to service. RIP.” —Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York

“Robert Morgenthau. Who died Sunday at 99, was the most innovative prosecutor in NYC history. No one did more over a lifetime to serve the public. His vigorous prosecutions helped push the murder rate down 90% during his 35 years in office, which made our great city safer for all.” —New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill

“I never ceased to be amazed by the incredible career and legacy of American history embodied by Robert Morgenthau when I had the privilege of covering his final years as @ManhattanDA for @NYDailyNews. He’d give me an earful if he caught me without my hat.” —journalist Marc A. Hermann

“Born in NYC in 1919 and a WWII hero, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau devoted more than 40 years of his life to the pursuit of justice — ‘without fear or favor.’ His legacy of keeping this city safe will forever be remembered. Our prayers are with his family.” —NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan

Full obituary: New York Times

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