Amherst Magazine

Coming Full Circle

By Emily Gold Boutilier

[Speakers] More than 70 years ago, Robert Morgenthau ’41 cofounded the Amherst Political Union, a student group that brought Eleanor Roosevelt and other big-name speakers to campus. The APU came full circle this spring, when its current leaders organized a talk by Morgenthau himself. The retired Manhattan district attorney (profiled in the Winter 2011 Amherst magazine) spoke in Pruyne Lecture Hall with LJST Professor Lawrence Douglas. Much of their talk centered on current legal and policy debates, proving that, even at 93, Morgenthau remains an active thinker in his field.

During his college days, Robert Morgenthau ’41 was also editor of  The Amherst Student. He went on to inspire the role of the DA in the TV series Law & Order.

Gun control: After the Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks of 2005, “the gun lobby got a bill enacted exempting gun industry manufacturers [and] dealers from civil liability,” Morgenthau said. “I think the single most important thing the United States could do is to repeal that statute so that the gun industry, like the cigarette industry, would be subject to civil liability.”

Immigration reform: “The person carrying a gun to shoot somebody is a lot more dangerous to society than somebody who steps across the border illegally,” argued the former DA.

The death penalty: Morgenthau is among those asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case of Alabama death-row inmate William Ernest Kuenzel. Even though new evidence has been discovered in the case, federal courts have rejected an appeal of Kuenzel’s conviction. “I thought that was just 100 percent wrong,” Morgenthau said.  

Crime rates: As a deterrent for crime, “prompt and certain punishment” is more important than the length of a sentence, Morgenthau said. Also, “most criminals commit a whole range of crimes. It might be turnstile-jumping one day and pocketbook-snatching the next and armed robbery the next. You try to get these guys early in their criminal careers.” When he was district attorney, the most important tool “that came along was DNA [analysis]. It was not only a weapon for exoneration but also for prosecution.” 

Bottom photo by Rob Mattson