Fordham Law

After a String of High-Profile Cases, DA Cy Vance Takes a Turn in the Searing Spotlight

James A. Cohen in WNYC, August 11, 2011

Media Source

The weakening case against ex-International Monetary Fund chief, acquittals for police officers charged with rape and for those indicted in the deadly Deutsche Bank fire have put Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who took over for Robert Morgenthau just 18 months ago, under intense scrutiny and criticism — with some saying his handling of these high-profile cases does not measure up to the standards set by his legendary predecessor.

But in interviews, former prosecutors who worked in the Manhattan District Attorney's office, legal experts and Vance’s former political opponents said it's too early to judge Vance and draw comparisons to his predecessor, who held the position for 35 years.

Last week Morgenthau issued a statement, defending his successor's handling of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case.

"For decades we instructed line prosecutors at the Manhattan DA's Office to seek justice over everything else, to investigate, to find the truth, and to proceed without fear or favor," he said in the statement. "The recent actions from the District Attorney’s Office show me that these attributes are alive and well at One Hogan Place."

This praise came at the right time, as recent revelations about the accuser in the case against the former IMF chief dealt the latest blow to Vance. Prosecutors admitted the results of an investigation showed the hotel housekeeper lied on her asylum application, tax returns and about the moments following the alleged sexual assault at the midtown hotel where she worked.

A high-profile case losing momentum

Sustainability of charges against Strauss-Kahn subsequently hangs in balance. After the next hearing was pushed from July 18 to August 1 on Monday, Erin Duggan, Vance’s chief spokeswoman, said the investigation was continuing and that a decision on whether the case will be dismissed had not been made.

Initially, the alleged victim appeared credible to the assistant district attorneys, police, co-workers at the Sofitel hotel where she worked and the medical team and social workers at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center, where she was treated after alleged assault.

"There was no reason to disbelieve her at the time," said Linda Fairstein, who was head of the sex crime unit in the Manhattan DA's office from 1976 to 2002. "There was nothing to contradict her story."

Vance's team also made the right move by being forthcoming with information about the alleged victim — even if it hurt the prosecution's case, Dan Richman, a professor at Columbia University Law School and former federal prosecutor, said.

"Here we have a teaching moment where a prosecutor's office does precisely what they’re supposed to do," said Richman, who noted District Attorneys offices have been known to bury evidence that favors defendants and not fulfilling their constitutional obligation in turning it over to defense teams.

"Cy Vance's office is acting in the best traditions of prosecutors' offices generally," he added.

The District Attorney's office had five business days to secure the indictment after they decided Strauss-Kahn should be kept in custody.

An alternative could have been to agree to some kind of a bail package for Strauss-Kahn with his legal team, take longer time to investigate what happened in the Sofitel on May 14 and then decide whether to bring the indictment.

"The better practice probably would have been to agree to a reasonable bail and let him [Strauss-Kahn] go about his business" said Isabel Kershner, attorney and former prosecutor, who also served on Vance's transition team. "If at the end of that you make a determination that these are not charges that you can sustain, you don’t have an indictment."

Others, though, said that without an extradition treaty with France it made sense to treat Strauss-Kahn as a flight risk and work on securing the indictment at the earliest possible time.

A pair of cases that played out in the press

Two other recent headline-grabbing cases for Vance’s office date back to Morgenthau era.

Two former NYPD officers were acquitted in May of raping a drunken woman they had been called to help in an emotional trial where every detail played out in newspapers. The decision to clear officers of the rape charge sparked outrage throughout the city. But experts said the case was difficult to prosecute because there was no DNA evidence, and the alleged victim was intoxicated. 

Last month, lawyers for the ex-officers filed motions to dismiss only charges they were convicted of: official misconduct.

In 2007, two firemen died in an attempt to extinguish a fire in the Deutsche Bank building, where a part of a standpipe was missing. The building, once in the shadow of the World Trade Center, was being dismantled and decontaminated after it was damaged on September 11, 2001. The District Attorney's office under Morgenthau considered indicting the city over failure to ensure safety of the site, but in the end reached a deal on changes in construction safety practices.

Bovis Lend Lease, a contractor that had ultimate responsibility for the demolition of the site after was not indicted. Instead, a decision was made to go after a cleanup supervisor, an asbestos foreman and a site safety boss.

"I think it was a stretch to indict these people," said Jim Cohen, a professor of law at Fordham University. "There was plenty of blame to go around, and the jury concluded that the least of it belonged on these two defendants, and then the judge concluded the same thing in the third."

While these three cases have received a lot of attention, around 500 assistant district attorneys who work in the office dealt with almost 100,000 cases last year.

Joan Vollero, spokeswoman for Vance, said the office had been successful in securing convictions and pleas in over 90 percent of cases in 344 cases for which trials commenced in 2010 in Supreme Court. She said she could not, however, provide the more revealing number of convictions on top charges.

Whatever his success rate has been so far, observers say it is too early to make judgment of Vance's tenure.

Leslie Snyder Crocker, who founded the sex crimes prosecution bureau in the Manhattan's District Attorney's office and ran against Vance in Democratic primaries for the District Attorney’s position in 2009, said her former opponent was doing "a decent job," but that it wasn't yet clear what he's managed to achieve.

"It's much too soon to pass judgment for someone who takes over and has only been in the job a year and a half," Crocker said. "Change is clearly necessary after 35 years and hopefully it will be a change for the better. But it's much too soon to know."