The entire political, legal, and law enforcement establishment of Queens stood in mourning on Tuesday to give their final farewell to District Attorney Richard Brown as his hearse drove past the Queens County Courthouse, Borough Hall, and down Queens Boulevard to the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, where hundreds of mourners honored the borough’s longest serving prosecutor.
“In scripture there is a powerful passage that says, ‘Follow justice and justice alone,’” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It could have been written for Judge Brown personally, because his love for justice was so intense and so clear. He had a seriousness and a focus and a sobriety when it came to the question of what was the right thing to do.”
The Forest Hills resident had been a longtime fixture in New York’s political scene, serving as counsel to Governor Hugh Carey in the 1970s, who appointed him as an appellate judge. In 1991, he was chosen by Governor Mario Cuomo to fill the vacancy for Queens District Attorney, a position in which he had subsequently been easily reelected six times. Regarded as a hands-on professional, he sometimes personally visited crime scenes to understand the cases at hand.
The Queens of 1991 was a very different borough, plagued by high crime and drug abuse. At the time, the public demanded a tough-on-crime prosecutor. From his first day on the job, he made difficult choices balancing trust in law enforcement while introducing alternative sentencing for certain crimes. In his first case inherited from his predecessor, he dismissed charges of murder against four of the five police officers who killed a car theft suspect, and leaving one officer to face the charge of manslaughter. Four years later, he cleared officers of charges relating to the shooting of a bystander during the pursuit of a gunman. But he also prosecuted three cops for the shooting of Sean Bell in 2006, for which they were later found not guilty.
Although he was personally opposed to the use of capital punishment, following the state’s revival of the sentence, he sought the death penalty in four cases, most notoriously in 2000, following the robbery and murder of seven Wendy’s employees in Flushing. The state’s highest court abolished the death penalty in 2007.
Among the reforming measures brought to the office by Brown include an immigrant affairs office, a domestic violence bureau, and a high school program that provides an alternative to incarceration while allowing youths to earn school credits and take exams.
Such reforms were welcomed by activists decrying the high incarceration numbers in the city, but did not diminish from the criticism of Brown for going after marijuana possession, turnstile jumping, and opposing the mayor’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail.
Refusing to wait for his retirement, reform-minded candidates emerged to challenge Brown in this year’s election. With Parkinson’s disease making his work difficult, and growing opposition to his approach, Brown announced his retirement, creating a highly competitive primary for the office. On the day of his funeral, there was only praise for Brown and his 27 years of work as District Attorney.
Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke of Brown as a “dedicated public servant” who “took on the scourge of opioid addiction, fought to protect domestic violence victims, worked to end human trafficking, and so much more.”
“I’ve had the honor of knowing District Attorney Richard Brown for nearly two decades. His “Say No to Violence” initiative in the Rockaways saved thousands of young people’s lives,” wrote Councilman Donovan Richards. “While we may have had our differences on policy, he was always a gentleman.”
Karen Koslowitz, a neighbor whose office is across Queens Boulevard from Brown’s, also expressed condolences. “As a member of the City Council I was able to witness and appreciate Richard Brown’s professionalism and dedication to the safety of the residents of Queens County. He will be sorely missed.”
Greg Lasak, a former prosecutor and judge, who is among the candidates seeking to succeed Brown, spoke of working for him as the “honor of a lifetime.”
Brown is survived by his wife, Rhoda, children Karen, Todd, and Lynn, and two granddaughters, the older of whom is a West Point cadet. His younger granddaughter will be going to West Point next year.
By Sergey Kadinsky