DA taps three legal eagles to investigate predecessor’s convictions

DA taps three legal eagles to investigate predecessor’s convictions
AP / Joe Marquette

District Attorney Ken Thompson has selected a trio of power attorneys to pick over the legacy of the man he defeated last November — 23-year top lawman Charles “Joe” Hynes.

Thompson named Bernard Nussbaum, Jennifer Rodgers, and Gary Villanueva to assist his expanded Conviction Review Unit, which will take a magnifying glass to many of Hynes’s successful — and controversial — prosecutions, and decide whether the verdicts deserve to be overturned.

“Their combined experience and uncompromising integrity will prove invaluable in my office’s efforts to meticulously examine available evidence in order to right wrongs or confirm convictions,” Thompson said on Feb. 21. “My ultimate goal is to ensure that the people of Brooklyn have faith in the fairness of our criminal justice system.”

Nussbaum was part of the Congressional legal team that investigated the Watergate incident in 1973, and he later served as White House counsel to President Bill Clinton, though he resigned over Clinton’s refusal to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the Whitewater scandal. Rodgers served as top attorney for the Justice Department, and Villanueva served as an assistant district attorney under Hynes’s predecessor, Liz Holtzman.

Hynes’s office drew repeated accusations of police and prosecutorial misconduct — particularly on the part of retired Detective Louis Scarcella and star assistant district attorney Michael Vecchione, who were accused of bullying suspects and witnesses and concealing important evidence.

During his tenure, Hynes created a similar panel to look into both his and Holtzman’s controversial prosecutions — a body he called the Conviction Integrity Unit.

Thompson’s new unit — and its new title — won plaudits from legal observers.

“I’m glad they properly named it,” said Brooklyn attorney John O’Hara, a longtime Hynes critic. “Otherwise, you would be assuming that Hynes’s convictions had integrity, and none of them did.”

Hynes prosecuted O’Hara — who had repeatedly run for office against the district attorney’s political allies —and had him disbarred in 1997 on the obscure felony charge of voting at the wrong polling place. O’Hara was reinstated to the bar in 2009, and is currently seeking a gubernatorial pardon.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him at twitter.com/WillBredderman.