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Pecora the Prosecutor

Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean at UC Irvine Law School, had a piece in the National Law Journal the other day about prosecutorial misconduct. We’ve all heard about the high profile cases involving the Duke lacrosse team and the late Alaska senator, Ted Stevens.  Chemerinsky’s article, citing evidence from an empirical study conducted by the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, suggests that misconduct (which can run the gamut from outright corruption and malfeasance to simple negligence) might be more widespread than many people realize.

The article got me to thinking about what kind of prosecutor Ferdinand Pecora (the subject of my book The Hellhound of Wall Street) had been.

Pecora was appointed as a deputy assistant district attorney in Manhattan in 1918, and he eventually became the number-two man in the office. During his twelve-year prosecutorial career Pecora was, in the words of his boss, an idealist with “an inveterate passion for justice.”

In one of his earliest cases, the junior lawyer was asked to cover a simple, one-day robbery trial for a sick colleague.  Pecora easily won the conviction of a young black man named Malcolm Wright, but Wright continued to insist on his innocence. Most prosecutors probably would have ignored those claims, but Pecora had a “queer feeling” about the case. He investigated Wright’s arrest and uncovered blatant police misconduct. Pecora presented the evidence to the judge and asked him to set aside the conviction and to order a new trial, at which Wright was acquitted.

Pecora had no tolerance for prosecutorial misconduct either. Here's a brief excerpt from the book:

As a result of his work on the Wright case, Pecora was assigned to investigate another potential wrongful prosecution, this one involving a New York poultry dealer named Joseph Cohen, who’d been convicted of hiring assassins to kill his business rival, Barnett Baff. The murder and trial had been front-page news in all the city papers, and Cohen was on death row in Sing-Sing when the district attorney learned that some of the testimony at the Cohen trial might have been perjured. He set Pecora to investigate the matter. In the face of obstruction after obstruction thrown up by the attorney general’s office, which had originally tried Cohen and which seemed to be implicated in the perjured testimony, Pecora was relentless, spending almost all his time over the next two years tracking down evidence in the case. Thanks to Pecora’s efforts, Cohen was eventually released from prison. (His execution had earlier been stayed just seven minutes before he was scheduled to go to the electric chair.)

Pecora obtained a perjury conviction against one of the witnesses in the Cohen murder trial. The day after the lengthy trial ended was a Saturday, and Pecora went to his then quiet office to clean up some paperwork. There was a timid knock on the door. A small gray-haired woman dressed all in black demurely asked whether he was Mr. Pecora. When he said that he was, she responded, “I am Mrs. Joseph Cohen.” Mrs. Cohen clasped Pecora’s hands and fell at his feet. As she sobbed uncontrollably, the only words she managed to get out were, “I came to thank you for what you have done for my husband.” For the rest of his life, Pecora called it the biggest fee he ever received as a lawyer.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.