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Death of Charles “Joe” Hynes

Longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes

By Irish Echo Staff

The death has taken place of longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes.

The 83-year-old former prosecutor, who served as Brooklyn DA from 1990 to 2013, died at a Florida hospice, his son Sean Hynes told the New York Post.

His health had been on the decline in the past year and he had been moved to hospice care in Deerfield Beach over the weekend. Hynes, who suffered a stroke three years ago, was surrounded by family when he passed, the report stated.

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Hynes was 83.

While his legal work focused on Brooklyn, Hynes’ broader life and career had a significant Irish American aspect and he was active in a number of campaigns and causes linked to Northern Ireland.

In 2011 the Echo honored Hynes with a Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual Law & Order Awards.

Reproduced here is a profile written at the time by Echo editor Ray O’Hanlon.

It’s fair to say that if you are going to present someone with a lifetime achievement award they should have a fair few years of achieving behind them.

Chalk that up to Charles “Joe” Hynes, now fifth term District Attorney for the borough of Brooklyn, a city in its own right that traces its story back to the very founding of the United States of America.

As a prosecutor, Hynes has presided over more cases than you could count, but in a life and career that has been full to the brim and then some, Hynes has also devoted time and energy to the causes of Irish America, particularly those that have a legal aspect to them.

My first encounter with Hynes had me standing on a Manhattan street looking up to the man, literally.

It was a blustery day in March and it was 1989. Hynes was a special prosecutor at the time and would soon be taking up his post across the bridge that bears Brooklyn’s name.

But on this day he was not behind a desk surrounded by law books, but rather standing on an open flatbed trailer with a bullhorn in his hand.

Hynes was one of the number of distinguished legal and political figures in the city who was protesting the fact that the New York Times had somehow missed the murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane more than a month before.

The absence of even a line of reportage in a case that has not been laid to rest even to this day, had caused angst and uproar, not just among Irish Americans leaders, but others who were not Irish American but were nevertheless concerned by the conflict in Northern Ireland.

On the trailer that day was Paul O’Dwyer, the city’s most revered Irish American leader. David Dinkins, a future mayor, was standing on it too, as was the then comptroller of Nassau County on Long Island, Peter King. Standing too was Sal Albanese, a city council member from Brooklyn, and Ruth Messinger, who would soon be Manhattan Borough President.

And taking his turn to speak was Special Prosecutor Hynes, who reminded those who were listening on the street, and anyone inside the Times building with an open window, that this was not the first time he had turned up here with the idea of persuading the county’s most prestigious newspaper that Northern Ireland was a more complex equation than British government’s press handouts might suggest.

He had been there a year earlier with a delegation from the Brehon Law Society and here he was again.

“Once more I appeal to the paper from the outside, not inside, that unless opinion makers label British cruelty for what it is the blood and tears will continue to flow,” said Hynes.

Sadly, he was correct though, as history would reveal less than a decade later, there was hope enough that the flow of blood and tears would ebb.

What would not ebb would be the dark secrets shrouding the murder of Pat Finucane, a case if ever there was one in need of a special prosecutor.

Even as his attentions were drawn increasingly into the intricacies of enforcing the law in Brooklyn, Hynes would keep a prosecutorial eye on Northern Ireland, the way that the law was enforced, or not enforced, in its six counties and how, at times, the very agents of the law, lawyers as well as the police, would be targeted by violence.

Ten years after the rally outside the New York Times, Hynes would be among a group of district attorneys and law school deans who would mark “Law Day” by calling for an independent judicial inquiry into the assassination of human right lawyer Rosemary Nelson.

“Rosemary Nelson’s murder seriously undermines the rule of law in Northern Ireland since the British government and the RUC so tragically failed to protect her, or to deal with the intimidation of other defense lawyers by RUC officers,” said Hynes at the time.

Hynes, as district attorney, was daily tasked with applying the law fairly and in an even handed way in a jurisdiction that was home to just about every national group on earth. Race was an everyday issue that had to be factored into cases and Hynes had won his spurs in this critical area with his securing, as special prosecutor, of convictions in the notorious Howard Beach case.

Hynes’s reputation as a ground breaking DA who was not afraid to apply new methods to age old problems would ensure that many would come knocking on his door in order to tap into his experience and expertise.

One such was then Irish justice minister Michael McDowell who, on a 2007 visit to New York City, sought out Hynes to tap into his knowledge on a range of issues.

McDowell learned from Hynes the latter’s system of coordinating the borough’s response to cases of domestic violence as well as his alternative to prison programs.

By then, Hynes was credited with establishing a program designed specifically to address domestic abuse as a criminal issue, one which was being widely imitated across the U.S.

As the Daily News would report, in 2005, in partnership with New York City and the state court system, Hynes opened the first Family Justice Center in New York State, an all-in-one facility where domestic violence victims could meet with prosecutors, counselors, civil attorneys and clergy members and be heard in their native languages.

Minister McDowell would say after his meeting with Hynes that the district attorney’s presentation had been “very impressive” and that there was a lot that Ireland could learn from the district attorney’s efforts. Given the groundbreaking projects that Hynes had inspired, this should have been no surprise to the Irish visitor.

The saying goes that all news is local. Same goes for the law. In New York, each borough-based jurisdiction has its nuances, even if the letter of the law is ostensibly the same between one and the next.

And if anyone understands the nuances of Brooklyn it is native son Hynes. That said, the Brooklyn-born Hynes does boast a Queens education having attended St. Ann’s Academy (now Archbishop Molloy High School) and St. John’s University where he studied law.

In his early years as a lawyer, Hynes worked for the Legal Aid Society before joining the Kings County District Attorney’s Office as an Assistant District Attorney in 1969. In 1971, Hynes was appointed as Chief of the Rackets Bureau and later was named First Assistant District Attorney.

In 1975, Governor Hugh Carey and Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz appointed Hynes as special state prosecutor to investigate nursing home fraud.

From that point on, his profile in the city would be in steady ascent. Mayor Ed Koch would name Hynes as the city’s fire commissioner, a post in which he served between 1980 and ’82.

But it would be as the lead prosecutor in the 1987 Howard Beach case that would see his name on the front pages and on top of the TV news show. Hynes secured three convictions in the case that stemmed from the beating to death of an African American teenager, Michael Griffith, by a gang of white teens.

Over time, Hynes, from his Brooklyn base, would become one of the best known prosecutors in the United States. Such a high profile does not always mean much to voters, but the citizens of Brooklyn had little problem returning Hynes to office each and every time he presented himself for their approval.

Hynes clearly has the legal skills to have been a very successful trial lawyer, but public service has always had the stronger pull.

“After a year with an admiralty law firm which provided me with no satisfaction, I accepted a position as a trial lawyer-trainee in the criminal division of the New York City Legal Aid Society,” Hynes said in response to questions for this profile.

“It was a kind of epiphany for my career as a trial lawyer. From the very beginning I found stimulation and professional satisfaction from the preparation for, and the execution of, the combat of the courtroom.

“My career, which included representing defendants charged in criminal court, and as chief prosecutor in Brooklyn for the last 21 years has spanned more than 45 years. And my career includes 27 years as an adjunct professor of trial advocacy at Brooklyn and St. John’s law schools, and 19 years at Fordham law school.”

A question asked of all the law enforcement honorees profiled in this issue is how they celebrate their Irish heritage.

Hynes answers it in a way that speaks less of how he celebrates his heritage, as how he cherishes it and how it has, over the years, directed his lawyer’s mind towards ways of improving the lives of people in Ireland, most especially the northern six counties.

“During the worst days of the recent troubles,” he said, “and during the eighties and the nineties, from the time I was appointed the New York City Fire Commissioner, I have never hesitated to speak out against the injustices experienced by the Catholics of Northeast Ireland as a result of the cruel policies of Margaret Thatcher and other officials of the British government.

“I was very proud when, as the result of the efforts of former President Bill Clinton, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Unionist leader David Trimble, Sein Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and former senator George Mitchell, that peace was at long last achieved.”

Those names are generally the ones that are up there in lights when the peace process is discussed. But there are others, quite a few, who put a shoulder to the wheel of peace. Charles Hynes is one of them.

Hynes, now 76, is still very much the man in charge of Brooklyn’s everyday legal life. It’s his very own spirit of 76 that recharges him each and every day.

So what stands out as the proudest moment in such a long and distinguished career?

“The proudest moment of my career,” responded Hynes, “occurred when the Brooklyn Family Justice Center, created for victims of domestic violence and their surviving children, was opened in 2005 and was dedicated by Mayor Bloomberg to Regina Katherine Drew, my mother, who was a victim of domestic violence for nearly two decades.

“The center provides the most extensive resources for victims of domestic violence and their surviving children than any other prosecutor’s office in the country.”

This, to say the least, is one Brooklyn-sized legacy.