Amherst Magazine

Top 10 Cases

By Rand Richards Cooper ’80

“Every case is important to the victim,” Morgenthau insists when asked to list the most important cases of his 48-year career. But some cases make a bigger splash than others. Ten notable Morgenthau prosecutions:

James M. Landis. Ex-dean of Harvard Law School and a founding father of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Landis is at the height of his career—a special assistant to President Kennedy—when Morgenthau prosecutes him for failure to pay income taxes. In August 1963, Landis pleads guilty and is sentenced to 30 days in prison. Disgraced, he dies 10 months later, drowning in his swimming pool.

Roy Cohn. Perpetual thorn to liberals, Cohn was chief counsel to Joseph McCarthy and a prosecutor in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In September 1963 a grand jury indicts him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for his role in an alleged stock-fraud conspiracy. Cohn calls the charges a “vendetta” in retaliation for his McCarthy-era investigations of Morgenthau’s father, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. Three times in six years Morgenthau tries Cohn on criminal charges—and loses all three.  

Phantom of the Opera. On June 23, 1980, violinist Helen Hagnes disappears after intermission of The Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera. Her body is found the next day in a ventilator shaft. Stagehand Craig S. Crimmins is arrested and confesses. The case is among the first in New York to rely on videotaped interrogation. “They were accusing us of coercing him,” Morgenthau recalls. “But you look at the tape, and there’s the guy, just calmly discussing it.” Crimmins gets 20 years to life.

Morgenthau v. Cooke. In 1982 the DA appears before the New York Court of Appeals to argue a case against Lawrence H. Cooke, then the state’s chief judge. The suit challenges Cooke’s authority to determine the system for assigning judges. It is the only case Morgenthau prosecutes personally in his career. “I had the time of my life,” he says now. “I argued it before his own court, with his seat vacant, and won unanimously.”

Bernhard Goetz. Riding the 7th Avenue subway on Dec. 22, 1984, the 37-year-old uses an unlicensed .38 Smith & Wesson to shoot four black teenagers he claims are trying to mug him. The case becomes a national sensation, reflecting racial divisions and rampant fear of urban crime. Indicted for attempted murder, Goetz is acquitted on all major charges and serves eight months for illegal possession of a firearm.

The Preppy Murderer. In August 1986, Robert E. Chambers, a prep-school grad and college dropout, strangles Jennifer Levin, 18-year-old daughter of a real estate broker, in Central Park after a night of partying in an Upper East Side bar. Chambers calls the death an accidental consequence of “rough sex,” but during jury deliberation in his trial for murder, he seeks a deal and pleads to first-degree manslaughter. Morgenthau consults the Levin family on the plea-bargain, giving them veto power over the deal, and wins praise for pushing new frontiers in victim rights.

The Central Park Jogger. In 1990, with violent crime spreading fear in the city, the DA’s office tries five black teenagers for the brutal rape of a 28-year-old jogger. All are convicted. In 2002, someone else—murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes—confesses to the crime. Morgenthau seeks to vacate all charges against the five, who have already completed their sentences. “Reyes told the correctional officers, he even wrote to the Innocence Project, and they just totally ignored him,” Morgenthau recalls. “But I listened to him.”

The Gambino Family. In 1990 the DA indicts seven Gambino family members for exacting a “tax” from Manhattan’s garment industry. In a plea deal, the Gambinos agree to pay $12 million in fines and to abandon their garment-trucking business, selling 400 trucks. “If they want to continue business in the garment industry,” Morgenthau tells the press, “the Gambinos will have to use wheelbarrows and wheel them for free.”

BCCI. In the early 1990s, Morgenthau pursues the Bank of Credit and Commerce, International—a $20 billion global bank operating in 78 countries—for “the largest bank fraud in world financial history.” Creatively claiming jurisdiction on the grounds that laundered money passed through Manhattan banks, he accuses BCCI of laundering drug money, bribing officials, financing illegal Iran-contra operations and trafficking in arms and nuclear technology. After what The New York Times calls “one of the most sweeping criminal prosecutions ever,” the bank antes up $880 million in fines and is forced to close. “There is a new hot prosecutor in town,” the Times writes of the 72-year-old DA.

Credit Suisse. In one of his final cases, Morgenthau announces in October 2009 that his office has been investigating “a large mainstream bank” for dealing with Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions. At his last press conference, he reveals the bank as Credit Suisse and announces a $536 million settlement. “No case is too small or too big for this office,” he says.

Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images