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History of the Office

The New York County District Attorney’s Office has a long tradition of excellence and non-partisanship, and is considered one of the nation’s preeminent prosecutor’s offices. Since the 1930s, there have been just four elected District Attorneys, and each has had a significant impact on modern criminal prosecution.

Thomas E. Dewey, New York County District Attorney: 1938-1941Close

 
Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, 100 Centre Street
Until 1801, New York County did not have a District Attorney; instead, criminal cases were prosecuted personally by the New York State Attorney General.  The first District Attorneys of New York County were appointed by the Council of Appointment, a body created by the New York Constitution of 1777 for the purpose of appointing government officials for which the Constitution provided no other means of appointment or election.  Under the Constitution of 1821, District Attorneys were appointed by the now-abolished Court of General Sessions, a process that continued until the Constitution of 1846, which provided for the popular election of District Attorneys.  The first elected District Attorney of New York County was John McKeon, who was elected in 1847 after having been appointed the previous year.  Until 1897, the term was three years, at which point District Attorneys began to be elected to the four-year terms that continue to this day.

 
Mr. Dewey campaigning for District Attorney, ca. 1937

1935

The modern era of professional, non-partisan prosecution in New York County began in 1935 when Thomas E. Dewey was named a special prosecutor to combat organized crime in New York County.  With his own staff, offices and budget, Mr. Dewey operated independently of the sitting District Attorney. Among Mr. Dewey’s innovations upon taking office as District Attorney were the creation of the Rackets Bureau and the Frauds Bureau, and the establishment of a team of forensic accountants to investigate financial crimes, and the creation of an in-house Investigation Bureau.

For much of its earlier history, the District Attorney's Office had been beset by political cronyism and a somewhat relaxed, laissez-faire attitude toward crime. The office changed course radically with Mr. Dewey's election as New York County District Attorney in 1938. Having galvanized the legal community with his far-reaching assault on racketeering and organized crime while New York's Special Prosecutor, the "racket-buster" brought the same measure of boundless energy, political non-partisanship, imagination and zeal to his four-year tenure as District Attorney.

"When Dewey took over, the atmosphere became rather like that in Washington during the early days of the New Deal," one reporter observed, referring to the excitement, energy and glamour that characterized both enterprises.
 
 
L: Mr. Hogan & Mr. Dewey, date unknown
R: Racket Busters film poster, 1938

Traditionally the preserve of clubhouse politicians and their pool of patrons, "the office" under Mr. Dewey's direction assembled a staff of lawyers and investigators that in the following decades read like a Who's Who of the legal profession.

 

What's more, his many innovations redefined the work of the District Attorney's Office. From a relatively passive, reactive force, it was transformed into a "veritable factory of prosecution."

 
Salvatore "Lucky Luciano” Lucania mug shot, 1936

1936

Mr. Dewey took the lead in investigating extortion rings, prostitution, gambling, and corruption in organized labor and government.

Under Mr. Dewey, who was elected District Attorney in his own right in 1937, the Office convicted a host of organized crime members and associates, including the notorious Salvatore Lucania, also known as "Lucky" Luciano.

 
 
L: Publication name unknown, 1939
R: The New York Times, 1939

1938

During much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tammany Hall reigned as one of the nation's most successful and corrupt political machines. In 1937, Mr. Dewey’s office secured the conviction of local Tammany Hall boss Jimmy Hines, one of the most powerful leaders of Tammany Hall in New York City. 

Mr. Dewey also famously conducted the investigation that led to the conviction and incarceration for acts of corruption of Martin T. Manton, who was at the time the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
 
 
 
L: Daily News, 1939
C: Publication name unknown, 1939
R: Publication name unknown, 1939

 

Frank S. Hogan, New York County District Attorney: 1942-1974Open

 
Frank Hogan swearing in, 1949
 
Frank Hogan swearing in, date unknown
L: Frank Hogan swearing in, 1949
R: Frank Hogan swearing in, date unknown

1942

In 1942, after Mr. Dewey had been elected Governor, Administrative Assistant District Attorney Frank S. Hogan succeeded him as District Attorney. 

Mr. Hogan was re-elected nine times and served as District Attorney for 32 years, until he resigned from office in 1974, a short time before his death..
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Mr. Hogan in Life Magazine, 1963
 
Mr. Hogan in Life Magazine, 1963
L & R: Mr. Hogan in Life Magazine, 1963
In the course of his 32 years in office, he steadily fashioned the New York County District Attorney's Office into a paradigm of the modern prosecutor's office. Known simply as "Hogan's office," and, on occasion, "Hogan's Ministry of Justice," the New York County District Attorney's Office established a widely copied canon of legal and personal conduct for its prosecutors.
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Mr. Hogan in Life Magazine, 1963
Mr. Hogan in Life Magazine, 1963

In high-profile cases of all kinds, including organized crime, major fraud, corruption, and homicide, as well as the no less serious robberies and other street crimes, the Office developed a national reputation for excellence, non-partisanship and fairness. The Office was as concerned with exonerating the innocent as with convicting the guilty.

In one of its most celebrated cases, the Office, after an extensive investigation, exonerated George Whitmore, Jr., who had confessed to the brutal 1963 killing of two young women in their Manhattan apartment; the real killer was later identified, prosecuted and convicted.

 
Dottohost, Associated Press, 1958. The investigation of Dotto catalyzed the quiz show scandals of the late 1950s.

1958

Under Mr. Hogan, the District Attorney's Office continued to conduct major investigations into fraud, corruption and racketeering, including, for example, highly-publicized probes in the 1950s and early 1960s into the fixing of college basketball games and the television quiz show scandals. 

In 1958, District Attorney Hogan began an investigation into cheating on the television quiz show Dotto following a standby contestant's discovery of a notebook used to prep winners with the answers. It quickly became apparent to D.A. Hogan that a widespread conspiracy was in place to hide the truth from the public.

Many producers and contestants lied to the Manhattan DA's Grand Jury and a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives about their role in quiz show trickery, but eventually admitted to coaching contestants to agonize and sweat over answers they already knew.

Shortly after the quiz show scandals came into public view thanks to Mr. Hogan’s investigation, the U.S. Congress made it a federal crime to give or receive assistance on a quiz show
 

 
 
L & R: "Hogan's Office" is a Kind of Ministry of Justice, NYT Magazine, July 23, 1967

1967

"In theory, the function of the District Attorney is to prosecute in the courts people charges with committing felonies and misdemeanors. In fact, so far as serious crimes are concerned, Hogan's office determines whether accused people are guilty or not. Once the New York D.A. decides you are guilty of a felony, you are. As of June 23, the office has prosecuted to a conclusion this year 2,182 people accused of a felony. Seven of them—0.33%—had been acquitted. Seventy two had been convicted by juries, and 2,103 have entered a plea of guilty to something.

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Campaign Poster, 1973

"Defendants plead guilty in New York County because their lawyers can demonstrate to them that they have no earthly hope of wining in court. Thought Hogan has no firm policy on disclosing the prosecution's case, and an Assistant District Attorney who feels the defense lawyer is a crook is empowered to give him no more than the law demands, standard operating procedure is to lay out the people's evidence in a conference with the defendant's lawyer and then begin to negotiate about the severity of the charge to which the defendant should plead.

"Our record of convictions," Hogan says, "does not show greater proficiency in the courtroom, but a better screening process. I ask a question whenever there's an acquittal, because it means the jury thinks we brought an innocent man to trial, and I think a jury is usually right."

- Hogan's Office is a Kind of Ministry of Justice. NYT Magazine, July 23, 1967


 
Mr. Hogan campaigns with Mr. Morgenthau, ca. 1973

1974

Richard Kuh succeeded D.A. Hogan as District Attorney of New York County after Mr. Hogan suffered a stroke and resigned. The street address of the main office of the New York County District Attorney was renamed One Hogan Place in his honor. Mr. Kuh was defeated by Robert M. Morgenthau in the September 1974 Democratic primary for the special election to fill the vacancy.

 

Robert M. Morgenthau, New York County District Attorney: 1975-2009Open

 
 
L: Mr. Morgenthau with staff, ca. 1988
R: Mr. Morgenthau at work, 1988. Photo Credit: Julianne Schaer

In 1975, Robert M. Morgenthau, who had previously served for nine years as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, became the New York County District Attorney.  Faced with rising levels of violent street crime and property offenses when he took office, District Attorney Morgenthau restructured the Office, implementing early screening of felony cases by experienced assistant district attorneys and "vertical" prosecution, which guaranteed that felonies and other serious cases would be handled by the same Assistant from start to finish.  Over the years, he created many specialized units, including the nation’s first Sex Crimes Unit. These organizational changes boosted New York County's conviction rate and led to a dramatic decline in violent crime.

 
With more violent felons and repeat offenders being sentenced to state prison, crime in New York County dropped markedly.  For example, in 2008 there were 62 homicides, 89 percent fewer than in 1974, the year Mr. Morgenthau was elected. During Mr. Morgenthau's tenure, there was an equally dramatic drop in other crimes throughout Manhattan, including robbery, burglary, and forcible rape.


Report of the District Attorney, County of New York: 2000 - 2009.

 
 
 
L: Mr. Morgenthau shakes hands with President John F. Kennedy, 1962
C: Mr. Morgenthau shakes hands with Martin Luther King, Jr., 1962
R: Mr. Morgenthau shakes hands with President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967

For decades, the Office has tirelessly pursued public corruption, complex fraud, and organized crime cases.  The Investigation Division was created to coordinate the Office's white-collar crime, corruption, and organized crime efforts, creating specialized units as needed, such as the Money Laundering and Tax Crimes Unit, to focus on areas of particular concern.  The Investigation Division has exposed and prosecuted systemic corruption and fraud in the construction trades, the garment industry, foreign and domestic banking, the securities business, municipal unions, and city and state government. 

 
 
L: Mr. Morgenthau campaigning with Robert F. Kennedy, 1960
R: Mr. Morgenthau campaigning with John F. Kennedy, 1960
In a prosecution of major figures in the private trade-waste business in the mid-to-late 1990s, the Office used the state's Organized Crime Control Act to help rid an important sector of the city's economy of mob domination and anti-competitive practices, leading to administrative reform in the licensing and regulation of waste carters.

Morgenthau vs. Cook, 1982. Matter of Morgenthau v. Cook was the only case DA Morgenthau argued personally before the New York Court of Appeals.  Mr. Morgenthau challenged the system of assignment of judges in the City of New York, by filing a proceeding against the Chief Judge of the State of New York (Cook).  Cook recused from the case, leaving only six Judges, and Morgenthau won 6-0.

The Office’s Trial Division is also well-known for its relentless pursuit of violent crime over the decades, and has prosecuted some of the most notorious homicides in recent memory.  These include the murder of John Lennon; the CBS murders; the murder of 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg by her adopted father, Joel Steinberg; the murder of Police Officer Anthony Sanchez; the “preppy murder” of Jennifer Levin by Robert Chambers; the murder of Irene Silverman by grifters Sante and Kenneth Kimes; and the murder of “realtor to the stars” Linda Stein by Natavia Lowery.


 
L: Robert Morgenthau at PAL Play Streets opening, date unknown
R: Robert Morgenthau playing stickball at PAL Play Streets opening, date unknown

Civic Involvement

 
One of D.A. Morgenthau's principal civic activities is the Police Athletic League of New York City (PAL), which he has served since 1962, first as President and then as Chairman of the Board of Directors.

 

Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney: 2010-presentOpen

 

 
Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., 2010

Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., became the District Attorney on January 1, 2010, and continues the traditions begun by his predecessors. A former Assistant District Attorney in the Rackets Bureau, the former Career Criminal Program, and a Trial Bureau, he has begun to execute a plan for the Office that includes a robust understanding of the street crime problem in Manhattan and implementation of crime prevention strategies, aggressive prosecution of white collar crime, and a commitment to bringing the DA’s Office closer to the neighborhoods it serves.

 

Since taking office, Mr. Vance has reorganized and consolidated the resources of the Office by creating the Cybercrime and Identity Theft Bureau, the Major Economic Crimes Bureau, the Special Victims Bureau, the Public Integrity Unit, the Violent Criminal Enterprises Unit, and the Hate Crimes Unit.  Additionally, the groundbreaking Crime Strategies Unit for the first time gives Manhattan Assistant District Attorneys, in partnership with the New York Police Department, a geographical understanding of the multifaceted crime issues in all of the communities they serve.

 

Notable Alumni of the District Attorney's OfficeOpen

Notable alumni of the District Attorney’s Office include Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and former Governors Thomas E. Dewey, Charles S. Whitman, and Eliot Spitzer; Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor; Judge Pierre N. Leval of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; former New York City Corporation Counsel Peter Zimroth; best-selling author and famed sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein; former Chief Judges Charles Breitel and Stanley Fuld of the New York Court of Appeals; former United States Attorneys for the Southern District of New York Emory Buckner and George Z. Medalie; Roslynn R. Mauskopf, former United States Attorney and now District Judge for the Eastern District of New York; Barbara S. Jones and John Keenan, United States District Judges for the Southern District of New York and Sterling Johnson and Dora Irizarry, United States District Judges for the Eastern District of New York; Ellen N. Biben, New York State Inspector General, as well as former Inspectors General and now Judges of the Court of Claims Dineen Riviezzo and Jill Konviser; Ronald G. Goldstock, the first Director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force;  Lanny Breuer, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice; Herbert J. Stern, former United States Attorney and District Judge for the District of New Jersey; Anne Milgram, former Attorney General of New Jersey; Robert E. O’Neill, United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida; and many other judges, lawyers in public service and private practice, academics, and others too numerous to mention.

Complete list of New York County District AttorneysOpen

Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. 2010 - Present
Robert M. Morgenthau 1975 - 2009
Richard H. Kuh 1974 - 1974
Frank S. Hogan 1942 - 1974
Thomas E. Dewey 1938 - 1941
William C. Dodge 1934 - 1937
Thomas C.T. Crain 1930 - 1933
Joab H. Banton 1922 - 1929
Edward Swann 1916 - 1921
Charles Albert Perkins 1915 - 1915
Charles Seymour Whitman 1910 - 1914
William Travers Jerome 1902 - 1909
Eugene A. Philbin 1900 - 1901
Asa Bird Gardiner 1898 - 1900
William Marvin K. Olcott 1896 - 1897
Vernon M. Davis 1896 - 1896
John R. Fellows 1894 - 1896
De Lancey Nicoll 1891 - 1893
John R. Fellows 1888 - 1890
Randolph B. Martine 1885 - 1887
Peter B. Olney 1883 - 1884
Wheeler H. Peckham 1883 - 1883
 
John McKeon 1982 - 1883
Daniel G. Rollins 1881 - 1881
Benjamin K. Phelps 1873 - 1880
Samuel B. Garvin 1869 - 1872
Abraham Oakey Hall 1862 - 1868
Nelson J. Waterbury 1859 - 1861
Joseph Blunt 1858 - 1859
Peter B. Sweeney 1858 - 1858
Abraham Oakey Hall 1855 - 1858
Lorenzo B. Shepard 1854 - 1855
Nathaniel Bowditch Blunt 1851 - 1854
James R. Whiting 1838 - 1844
Ogden Hoffman 1829 - 1835
Hugh Maxwell 1821 - 1829
Pierre C. VanWyck 1818 - 1821
Hugh Maxwell 1817 - 1818