Joe Hynes is coming to prime time. Next week, the Brooklyn district attorney will appear in Brooklyn DA, a six-part series airing on CBS and billed as “a tough, candid look” at the office he’s presided over for nearly a quarter-century. Hynes gave the network unprecedented access to produce the show, an arrangement that appears, on its face, to be a fantastically bad idea, for numerous interlocking reasons.
For starters, Hynes has already been accused of pimping out his public office to CBS, pulling prosecutors away from cases and putting them in front of the cameras, a criticism made more damning by the fact that he’s in the midst of a reelection campaign. The show’s timing, four months before the September 10 primaries, has already prompted one of Hynes’s opponents to sue the network, declaring the series a six-hour free infomercial for the Hynes campaign.
The hype around the series has also become another excuse for critics to dredge up all the other controversies Hynes is embroiled in. Earlier this month, he opened an internal investigation into at least 50 cases handled by a now-retired police detective who, while working with Hynes’s prosecutors, is accused of using false testimony and other duplicitous means to achieve convictions.
The allegations aren’t the only recent claims of misconduct. Hynes’s prosecutors have been accused of failing to share critical evidence with defense attorneys in dozens of cases, and at least three convictions have been overturned in the last few years. Jabbar Collins, who spent sixteen years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction, has sued Hynes’s office in federal court. His lawyers plan to argue that, in the words of one federal judge, Hynes was “deliberately indifferent to the underhanded tactics” of one of his top and most controversial prosecutors, Michael Vecchione. (The gruff Vecchione, long known in Brooklyn for his aggressiveness and penchant for publicity, will also be a featured player in Brooklyn DA.)
Already the series is creating a legal mess. Last week, defense attorney Gerald Shargel tried to prevent footage from airing, after, he says, he learned that a Hynes prosecutor had been filmed prepping a witness for an upcoming trial. “This is a very serious criminal case that should be tried in a courtroom,” he wrote the judge, “not on ‘reality TV.’ ” Susan Zirinsky, the show’s senior executive producer, is adamant that Brooklyn DA will be hard-hitting. “This is not a wet kiss,” she tells me. “You’re going to see the losses. You’re going to see a case get screwed up after two years of hard work.” Still, Hynes agreed to go through with the show—and, somewhat incredibly, without negotiating a chance to review any footage before it airs.
Hynes isn’t too concerned about the fallout. “Look,” he says when we meet, “Did I think for a moment, Gee, this could be a disaster? Yeah. I’ve been around long enough to understand the practical.”
It’s late April, and Hynes is seated at his desk in his airy office, a quiet perch high above the criminal courts and all their attendant chaos. He wears a dark, three-piece banker’s suit, the pinstripes running from his lapels to his Florsheims, a cloud of Brut hovering. On the table in front of him are copies of books he’s written—one true and one fictional—about the crime world in New York with all its saucy dialogue and can’t-believe-it’s-true plot twists. He’s finished writing his third, a novel called The Chairman, about a respected lawyer who’s called in by a mayor to solve a corruption problem, a setup that Hynes himself lived through as a young prosecutor.
He’s very much his own story. In 1986, when street crime and racial unrest were still the city’s main narrative, Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old from Trinidad, was hit by a car and killed while running from a white mob in Howard Beach. Hynes was tapped to investigate and prosecute the case. His success in gaining convictions against the hooligans made his career. He was approached by reporters daily and learned the importance of television in politics.
“The reality is that I was in everybody’s living room for four months with the Howard Beach trial, so I had a very high profile,” he says. He used his star power to run for office. At first, he was an unlikely D.A., a former Legal Aid attorney and a critic of prosecutorial power. He oversaw the office during the crack-addled early nineties, when there were hardly enough prosecutors to handle the heavy load of murder cases and street gangs. Among colleagues, he became known for his progressive, anti-recidivist programs.
His first serious challenge came in 2005. In a crowded field, Hynes won by a measly 5,000 votes. On the campaign trail, he was shocked by how few people knew who he was.