Former District Attorney Charles Hynes passed away at a hospice-care center in Florida on Tuesday night, his son Sean Hynes told this newspaper. He was 83-years-old.
His specific cause of death has not been determined, but Hynes suffered from Lukemia and other health problems that forced him to undergo heart surgery in recent years, according to his son, who said the former top prosecutor died while away on vacation, surrounded by his loving family.
“On Tuesday night we lost our hero,” Sean Hynes said.
Hynes served as the borough’s top prosecutor for 24 years, taking office in 1990 and retaining the seat until 2014, after late District Attorney Ken Thompson defeated him in the 2013 Democratic primary, and again in that year’s general election — the first time in nearly 60 years that voters ousted a reigning district attorney.
Family and friends laid Hynes to rest following his Saturday funeral in Queens, where the Fire Department’s Ceremonial Unit and Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Band kicked off the service with a tribute to the late leader, who also served as Fire Commissioner from 1980 to 1982.
The Flatbush-raised legal eagle — who began his career at the do-good Legal Aid Society, before joining the Brooklyn district attorney’s office in 1969 — leaves behind a legacy defined largely by his focus on domestic-abuse crimes, and his reputation as a champion for battered women, according to a former spokesman.
“This was the driving force of his life,” said Jerry Schmetterer, who served as Hynes’s communications director for 12 years. “This is what he cared about the most.”
Hynes, who often spoke publicly about the abuse his mother suffered at the hands of his father, created a special unit to prosecute domestic-abuse cases almost immediately after taking office — a novel move at the time, but has since become a standard practice for district attorneys’ offices nationwide, Schmetterer said.
“It was just about the first thing he did when he became DA, and that’s copied everywhere now,” he said.
And in 2005, Hynes opened the Downtown-based Family Justice Center with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which offers counseling, child-care, and other services to thousands of domestic-abuse survivors each year. The city went on to dedicate the facility to Hynes’s mother, whom the late top prosecutor credited as the inspiration for his urge to protect women.
“I am particularly grateful that the mayor has agreed to dedicate the Center in memory of my mother, Regina Drew,” Hynes said back when the space opened.
Hynes enacted other lasting progressive reforms, too, including the Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison Program he instituted in 1990, which sentences defendants guilty of some felony drug charges to treatment instead of imprisonment, and remains a staple of Kings County’s justice system, according to a fellow Democrat.
“His many innovations provide a template for DAs and future DAs throughout the country,” said Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Frank Seddio.
But his legacy is complicated by a long list of controversies, including allegations that he wielded his authority to target political rivals and shield allies from prosecution, and a series of ethics scandals that dogged him well after he left the district attorney’s office.
Hynes revealed himself as a ruthless political operator when he prosecuted rival attorney John O’Hara not once, not twice, but three times for voter fraud, which a jury convicted O’Hara of in 2000, making the lawyer the first New Yorker found guilty of the crime since legendary 19th-century suffragette Susan B. Anthony.
A judge sentenced O’Hara to 1,500 hours of community service, $20,000 in fines, and barred him from practicing law for nearly a decade, until he was reinstated to the bar in 2008.
The following year, a state judicial committee released a report calling Hynes’s prosecution of O’Hara baseless and politically motivated, and in 2017, a conviction-review unit Thompson established after Hynes left office exonerated O’Hara.
And in 2014, the city’s Department of Investigation released a report alleging Hynes, in exchange for political work on his 2013 reelection campaign, paid a media consultant more than $219,000 using money seized from criminal suspects, prompting a federal investigation into the matter. But the Feds in 2016 declined to prosecute Hynes, citing a lack of evidence.
The former top prosecutor, however, did ultimately cop to some illegal campaign-related activities, including using his municipal e-mail account for campaign communications, leading watchdogs on the city’s Conflict of Interest Board to slap him with a $40,000 fine last year — the largest the panel ever issued for such violations.