Richard A. Brown, Former Queens District Attorney, Dies at 86

Richard A. Brown, the Queens County district attorney who in almost three decades in that office prosecuted police officers accused of committing unjustified killings, robbery defendants who executed potential witnesses and a doctor convicted of murder for fatally botching an abortion, died on Saturday in a hospice care facility in Redding, Conn. He was 86.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his son, Todd, said.

In January, after seven terms in office, Mr. Brown announced that he would not seek re-election.

Mr. Brown, a former judge who left the calm of an appellate court for the pressures of a big-city prosecutor’s office, was known in his early years on the job for showing up at crime scenes, an unusual practice for the city’s district attorneys.

He said those visits, sometimes occurring after rolling out of bed in the middle of the night, gave him a better understanding of the cases his office would be handling. Those who knew him said the visits reflected his hands-on approach to the job.

Mr. Brown was an associate justice of Brooklyn’s Second Department of the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court when Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, named him district attorney of Queens County in June 1991 on an interim basis, succeeding John J. Santucci, a 14-year incumbent, who had retired in the middle of his fourth term.

Mr. Santucci bequeathed to Mr. Brown one of the most rancorous cases then pending in the city’s courts. It involved murder charges against five New York City police officers that Mr. Santucci’s office had obtained from a grand jury weeks before in the death of a car-theft suspect. The office said that one officer had choked the man and that the four others had “acted in concert.” Witnesses said the officers had punched and kicked the man.

The officers contended that they had struggled to subdue the man, who they said was violently resisting arrest. Some legal experts called the murder charges against the four who were not accused of the choking prosecutorial overreach.

Mr. Brown agreed, dropping all charges against those four shortly after taking office. Moreover, he reduced the charges against the officer who allegedly did the choking to manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, calling those charges more appropriate. The officer was acquitted of both counts at trial.

The family of the dead man, Federico Pereira, and his supporters were outraged, contending that Mr. Brown had made a political calculation that a more lenient stance toward the police would help his chances of winning a full term in a special election later in 1991.

Mr. Brown’s aides disputed that accusation, noting that he had become the front-runner when Mr. Cuomo gave him the interim appointment. He said his actions reflected the perspective of someone who had spent a decade as an appellate judge.

Mr. Brown easily defeated his Republican opponent in the election and was re-elected every four years afterward with multiparty backing, most recently in 2015, making him the longest-serving district attorney in Queens.

Years later, Mr. Brown found himself dealing with another emotionally charged case involving police action: the 2006 killing of a man, Sean Bell, and the wounding of two other men in a hail of 50 police bullets fired at their car — without justification, Mr. Brown’s office charged — during a chaotic confrontation outside a strip club in Jamaica, Queens.

Three detectives were tried on charges that included manslaughter and reckless endangerment. The detectives said that the car had hit one of them, and that they had believed that the men had a gun. No gun was found in the car. The wounded men said that they and Mr. Bell had been desperately trying to flee because they believed that the detectives, in plainclothes, were robbers.

Some critics of the police said that the incident was a vivid example of the kind of excessive force that they said the police routinely used against unarmed black men, even though two of the prosecuted detectives were also black.

In an interview with The New York Times afterward, Mr. Brown, noting the challenges the case had posed to his office, said he had told his staff that the office had the respect of the police and the confidence of Queens residents and that he had wanted “to be certain that we come out of this investigation with that reputation intact.”

The detectives were acquitted at trial of all the charges. Critics of the prosecution contended that its trial tactics had significantly helped the defense. Mr. Brown responded that the decisions on tactics had been “appropriately made.”

Among the office’s most widely publicized successes under Mr. Brown were the murder convictions of two men charged with killing five employees of a Wendy’s restaurant in 2000, in an effort to eliminate witnesses to the $2,400 robbery they had committed there and the 1995 murder conviction of Dr. David Benjamin for a fatal abortion.

An obstetrician, Dr. Benjamin had performed a late-term abortion, though lacking the skills to do such a procedure, while appealing the revocation of his license for gross incompetence and negligence in five other cases. He had not given the woman any medical assistance as she bled to death, Mr. Brown said. This “cumulatively demonstrated his depraved indifference to human life,” Mr. Brown said, and warranted a murder charge rather than the lesser charge of manslaughter that many had expected.

Mr. Brown was praised by civic leaders and politicians for the high degree of attention they said he gave to mundane crimes that were important to neighborhood residents.

In 1999, Claire Shulman, then the Queens borough president, cited his efforts against offenses like prostitution and graffiti. “He helped close 45 houses of prostitution on Roosevelt Avenue,” she said, “and that had been a very serious quality-of-life issue for the people who lived around it.”

But there were also jabs at Mr. Brown for convictions that were overturned for prosecutorial misconduct, including one in which a man won $3.5 million for his 12 years in prison for a 1992 attempted-murder conviction. A federal court overturned the conviction, finding that the prosecution had presented false testimony from its key witness.

The lawsuit leading to the payment charged that about 80 Queens convictions over a 15-year period ending in 2003 had been overturned because of prosecutorial wrongdoing. Mr. Brown replied that “over two-thirds of the cases cited” were prosecuted before he became district attorney, and that all the cases listed “represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the hundreds of thousands” prosecuted during that period. He said “many” of the dismissed convictions were followed by convictions in retrials or by guilty pleas.

Richard Allen Brown was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 13, 1932, and raised in Queens.

He graduated from Hobart College and New York University School of Law and worked as a counsel to Democratic leaders of the State Legislature from 1961 to 1969 and as New York City’s lobbyist in Albany until 1973. Over the next eight years he served as a judge in New York City Criminal Court and in State Supreme Court, a trial bench and as counsel to Gov. Hugh L. Carey. Mr. Carey named him to the Appellate Division in 1981.

Mr. Brown is survived by his wife, Rhoda; daughters, Lynn Brown Foodman and Karen Brown; son, Todd; sister, Carolyn Straker, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Brown, whom colleagues called “Judge Brown” long after he became district attorney, liked to tell the story of how he got another name stemming from his court days — in fact, from his very first day presiding in a courtroom, in November 1973.

He was assigned to Manhattan Criminal Court, and a defendant who was to be arraigned on a charge of menacing his estranged girlfriend pulled out a gun in the courtroom, shot and wounded the woman and then either shot himself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt or was shot by a police officer. As the gunfire sounded, Judge Brown ducked under the bench, earning him, he recalled, the nickname Duck Down Brown.

Heather Murphy contributed reporting.

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