Robert Morgenthau, longtime Manhattan DA and 'Law & Order' inspiration, dies at 99

During an 2009 interview with CNN, former Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau said he made a promise to devote to life to public service after his ship sank while serving in the Navy during WWII.

Posted: Jul 22, 2019 8:50 PM
Updated: Jul 22, 2019 8:50 PM

Robert M. Morgenthau, the longtime Manhattan district attorney who set the "gold standard" for prosecutors and was the model prosecutor for the TV series "Law & Order," has died at the age of 99.

Morgenthau took office in 1975 and ran the district attorney's office for 35 years until the age of 90, making him New York City's longest serving district attorney.

In that time, he navigated the New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the crime boom of the '80s and '90s and the post 9/11 era in the 2000s, all the while racking up high-profile prosecutions of celebrities, mobsters, terrorists, money launderers and Wall Street fraudsters.

Morgenthau created 34 bureaus and units within the DA's office specializing in labor racketeering, identity theft, firearms trafficking, Asian gangs and cold cases, among others. The sex crimes unit, in its infancy when Morgenthau took office, grew into the prototype for similar units across the country, CNN wrote in 2010.

His office became the model for "Law & Order," the New York City police and legal drama created by Dick Wolf that ran from 1990 to 2010. The show's first fictional district attorney, Adam Schiff, played for 10 years by actor Steven Hill, was said to be based on Morgenthau.

The real-life Morgenthau even had a cameo role on the show as a judge, and he recalled to CNN one time he met Hill.

"I was mad at him because I understood that he was getting $25,000 an episode, and I told him when he quit I wanted his job, and he didn't tell me," Morgenthau said in 2010.

Morgenthau's office led the prosecution of five young men of color who were convicted of the 1989 rape of a Central Park jogger. In 2002, he agreed to dismiss the charges against the so-called Central Park Five, after another man admitted to the crime and provided matching DNA evidence, exonerating the group of five.

Morgenthau said he first decided to dedicate his life to public service when the young Naval officer's ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea off Algiers in 1944 . He was floating in the water for hours.

"I made a number of promises to the Almighty when I didn't have very much bargaining power, so that's how I got hooked," he told CNN in 2010.

Prior to his time atop the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, he served nine years as US attorney for the Southern District of New York. When he retired as district attorney on the last day of 2009, his DA's office had 500-plus lawyers who handled about 100,000 cases each year.

The 'gold standard of prosecutors'

Political and legal figures in New York, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and former US Attorney Preet Bharara, praised him in the wake of his death.

"As New York City's longest serving District Attorney, he presided over an era of extraordinary transformation and inspired generations of public servants," de Blasio said in a statement. "We simply wouldn't be the safest big city in America today if not for Morgenthau's decades of dedicated service. His memory will live on as we continue striving toward a fairer criminal justice system."

Gov. Cuomo praised Morgenthau as a "true New York hero whose dedication to public service and the law was matched only by the impact he had on the young prosecutors and lawyers like me who worked for him," he wrote in a statement.

Cuomo called him the "gold standard of prosecutors" and directed flags on state government buildings to be lowered to half-staff on Wednesday until his internment.

"This is terribly sad. Robert Morgenthau, former SDNY US Attorney and Manhattan DA, was an unparalleled patriot, veteran, prosecutor, public servant. He gave his whole life to service. RIP," Bharara said on Twitter.

NYPD Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill said on Twitter that Morgenthau "was the most innovative prosecutor in NYC history. No one did more over a lifetime to serve the public. His vigorous prosecutions helped push the murder rate down 90% during his 35 years in office, which made our great city safer for all," he said.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 614946

Reported Deaths: 9807
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion849231342
Lake45784693
Allen33103560
Hamilton29752316
St. Joseph27572383
Elkhart24496346
Vanderburgh19679255
Tippecanoe18150144
Johnson15234296
Porter14970172
Hendricks14550253
Madison11071223
Clark10852145
Vigo10819185
Monroe9496115
Delaware9193136
LaPorte9173164
Howard8325148
Kosciusko811485
Warrick683399
Hancock6783106
Bartholomew6659100
Floyd6522113
Wayne6194164
Grant6050118
Dubois559081
Boone557968
Morgan551996
Henry512365
Marshall507884
Dearborn488745
Cass487864
Noble476159
Jackson428747
Shelby423381
Lawrence395180
Clinton375845
Gibson375560
Harrison354046
DeKalb351365
Montgomery349754
Knox337839
Miami325244
Steuben315846
Whitley313126
Wabash306951
Adams303636
Ripley301646
Putnam299152
Huntington295760
Jasper293035
White275943
Daviess271776
Jefferson267738
Decatur249983
Fayette249949
Greene242763
Posey241828
Wells237551
LaGrange230363
Scott227939
Clay225032
Randolph215848
Jennings200937
Spencer193622
Sullivan193633
Washington189023
Fountain185227
Starke177044
Jay168723
Owen168338
Fulton165430
Orange161035
Carroll160616
Rush156418
Perry156129
Vermillion150034
Franklin149933
Tipton134433
Parke13098
Pike118826
Blackford112023
Pulaski97937
Newton92621
Brown88835
Benton87110
Crawford8099
Martin75013
Warren6867
Switzerland6695
Union6297
Ohio4967
Unassigned0375

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 872918

Reported Deaths: 10856
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin102616707
Cuyahoga868931154
Hamilton65148455
Montgomery43662420
Summit35411766
Lucas31794634
Butler31451232
Stark26247445
Warren19939144
Lorain19378229
Mahoning17561339
Lake16350161
Clermont16235113
Delaware1463881
Licking13453142
Fairfield1301782
Trumbull12980317
Greene12226144
Medina11798169
Clark11094266
Wood10507158
Allen10031128
Portage9514111
Richland9275134
Miami927273
Marion7512113
Tuscarawas7455186
Columbiana7433124
Pickaway735250
Muskingum714042
Wayne7140172
Erie6253130
Ross5589100
Hancock556292
Scioto545365
Geauga518955
Darke474395
Lawrence464658
Union459130
Ashtabula457973
Sandusky440462
Huron435541
Mercer435590
Seneca435366
Auglaize425166
Belmont423948
Jefferson423969
Shelby422923
Washington396340
Athens38619
Putnam379276
Madison359930
Knox358423
Ashland349638
Fulton341744
Defiance336188
Crawford327274
Preble323637
Brown318821
Logan314835
Ottawa297443
Clinton293944
Highland282219
Williams282267
Jackson266145
Guernsey259326
Champaign254628
Fayette241030
Morrow23594
Perry235518
Holmes227274
Henry222954
Hardin217033
Coshocton208023
Van Wert204445
Gallia200126
Wyandot198151
Pike180918
Adams179815
Hocking174024
Carroll158216
Paulding145521
Noble121040
Meigs110324
Monroe103433
Harrison89821
Morgan84531
Vinton71714
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Cloudy
24° wxIcon
Hi: 27° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 14°
Angola
Partly Cloudy
21° wxIcon
Hi: 24° Lo: 17°
Feels Like: 13°
Huntington
Cloudy
24° wxIcon
Hi: 26° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 16°
Fort Wayne
Cloudy
24° wxIcon
Hi: 27° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 14°
Lima
Cloudy
25° wxIcon
Hi: 28° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 16°
More Clouds than Sun Wednesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events