At one time, Charles “Joe” Hynes was the untouchable District Attorney of Kings County, holding down the post as Brooklyn’s top prosecutor form 1989 to 2013. He often ran for election with little or no opposition. But as is often the case with politicians who overstay their welcome, the end of his career with filled with allegations of wrongdoing and corruption. In 2010, Hynes’ office vacated the murder conviction of Jabbar Collins, who had been convicted in 1995 of killing a Brooklyn rabbi. Collins had been sentenced to 34 years to life in prison, but won the right to retrial after the district attorney’s office admitted that a key witness had recanted his testimony in the presence of a prosecutor before trial, and that this information had not been disclosed to the defense. Collins was released after another of the original witnesses against him, Angel Santos, testified that the case’s original prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Michael Vecchione, had coerced Santos to testify against Collins with threats of physical violence and imprisonment. Following Collins’ release, Hynes said Vecchione was “a “very principled lawyer” and “not guilty of any misconduct”, and said he had no plans to investigate anyone who had been involved in Collins’ prosecution. News of other similar incidents involving Vecchione and Brooklyn Detective Louis Scarcella arose that called into question how trials were conducted and witnesses treated. Another controversy arose when it was alleged that Hynes had used forfeiture money for campaign expenses and had been privately communicating with Kings County Administrative Judge Barry Kamins; Kamins resigned from his judgeship as a result of the scandal. Hynes was driven out of office by the election of Kenneth Thompson who ran on a platform of focusing on wrongful convictions from the 80s and 90s.
Hynes was also known for politically-motivated prosecutions, often charging folks who had the audacity to try and unseat him. In 2001, civil court judge John Phillips announced his intent to oppose Hynes in that year’s race for district attorney. Shortly afterward, Hynes’ office began an investigation that resulted in claims that Phillips was the victim of a real estate scheme, and that the 70-year-old judge was incompetent to handle his own affairs. Hynes’ former chief of staff was named as temporary guardian of Phillips’ real estate holdings.In 2003, Hynes’ office filed felony theft charges against Sandra Roper, a lawyer who had challenged Hynes in the 2001 primary race. Prosecutors said that Roper had stolen about $9,000 from a client, whom she allegedly told she was representing for free. Ms. Roper’s defense argued that the funds were legal fees that the client had agreed to. Hynes subsequently recused himself from the case. Following a 2004 mistrial due to a hung jury, the charges were dismissed in 2005 after Roper repaid the funds to the client.
But the worst politically-motivated prosecution of all is the one I am writing about today: In 1997, Hynes successfully prosecuted lawyer John O’Hara for voting in the wrong election district. O’Hara admitted that he had voted in his girlfriend’s district where he had been living. As a result he was disbarred, paid a $20,000 fine, and served 1,500 hours of community service. Only one other person was ever convicted in New York for voting in the wrong district: Suffragette Susan B. Anthony! . O’Hara has claimed he was prosecuted because he had run for office against Hynes’ allies and had supported challengers against Hynes. In 2009, the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division unanimously approved a report by a state judicial committee that found that O’Hara’s prosecution was unjustified; the report said, “Mr. O’Hara, accurately it appears, claims that [Hynes’ political] machine went gunning for him and pounced on his change of residency calling it election fraud.” O’Hara was reinstated to the bar, although his conviction was unfortunately upheld as presumably his actions did meet the elements of the statute – though the conviction seems to be on factually shaky grounds in my opinion: O’Hara lived in an apartment on 61st Street in Brooklyn and voted from that address for many years. After redistricting in the early 1990’s put his apartment in a different election district, O’Hara filed a new registration form stating residence at the 47th Street basement apartment of the building owned by his ex-girlfriend.The registration put O’Hara back in his old district, and he voted under the 47th Street address five times.
O’Hara has now filed a new motion to overturn his conviction. The motion claims Hynes, among other things, let certain prosecutors sidestep residency requirements while Hynes submitted his own “false real estate-related filings” and did not give his own correct address for voting purposes.
In pushing a “newly discovered evidence claim,” O’Hara’s motion points to a bar reinstatement report by the fitness committee of the Appellate Division, Second Department, voicing “grave doubts” about the high-profile case and the absence of other criminal prosecutions for electoral fraud cases. O’Hara is represented by Joel Rudin, a well-known litigator, who represented Jabbar Collins. It is hoped that DA Kenneth Thompson does the right thing here and agrees to support the motion. This kind of political hatchet job should not be allowed to stand.
O’Hara helped me out on my recent exoneration of David McCallum using some of his contacts to bring the story to the attention of the media and otherwise being there to bounce off ideas and strategize. When I learned first-hand the details of his situation, I could not believe Hynes had gotten away with it. John O’Hara has suffered the serious consequences of this selective and shady prosecution. It is time to undo the conviction and clear his name. It is time to clean up another disgraceful mess from the Hynes Era.