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Joe Sexton: Ex-Prosecutor Won’t be Watching Brooklyn DA

May 30, 2013

A decade ago, Robert Reuland played a role in what surely would have made for a lively episode of the new series.

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Image from Flickr via Bob Jagendorf

By Joe Sexton
By arrangement with ProPublica

Brooklyn DA, CBS’s controversial behind-the-scenes series on the life and work of the borough’s prosecutors, debuted Tuesday night. Over the course of the hour, an average of 4.9 million folks tuned in.

Robert Reuland was not one of them.

“I don’t watch TV,” Reuland, a defense lawyer in Brooklyn, said on the evening of the show’s premier. “Newshour, Jeopardy, Game of Thrones. That’s it. Oh, and Mad Men.”

One could be forgiven for having assumed Reuland might have been a rapt viewer. A decade ago, Reuland played a role in what surely would have made for a lively episode of Brooklyn DA. He was a young prosecutor in the office’s homicide bureau, a Vanderbilt Law School graduate who took a $100,000 pay cut from his job at a white-shoe firm in Manhattan to get dirty fighting big city crime. He won some cases, wrote a novel, got highlighted in a magazine feature on the city’s most promising legal lions, ticked off his boss and lost his job.

His misstep? In the course of describing for a New York magazine reporter how much he loved his work, Reuland noted how, if you were a homicide prosecutor in Brooklyn in 2001, you could, well, stay pretty busy. Charles J. Hynes, the district attorney, took offense. The borough president did, too. Reuland was demoted, and then resigned. He licked his wounds, started another novel, and made a First Amendment case out of his treatment by Hynes. He ultimately won $30,000 in federal court.

Pretty good reality TV, no?

How much honesty the series is willing to exhibit remains to be seen.

Reuland wasn’t interested in playing. The past is the past, he said, cradling a cocktail in his Brooklyn kitchen Tuesday evening. He is over his upset; he has, as a man representing accused murderers in Brooklyn these days, no interest in re-antagonizing the borough’s prosecutors; he even gave money to Hynes’s re-election campaign. The gesture, he said, was appreciated.

But if Reuland has little interest in Brooklyn DA, he has hope for it.

“Typically, television simultaneously underappreciates and overdramatizes what prosecutors do,” he said. “It’s important people understand what the work of prosecutors really is like. It’s nine parts boredom, and one part extreme terror. I hope the show doesn’t glamorize what prosecutors do.”

There was little glamor in the first installment. A good hearted prosecutor gets her heart broken when her two-year sex trafficking case falls apart; the chief of the homicide bureau walks the street where a cop was killed; a prosecutor trying to make an art heist case spends most of his time on camera ordering food in a deli.

How much honesty the series is willing to exhibit remains to be seen. Michael Vecchione, a senior prosecutor in the office, made regular appearances in Tuesday’s program, laughing as he helped plot a sting operation, smiling as he offered rewrite suggestions to a young prosecutor making her first opening statement.

There was no mention of the two federal judges who excoriated Vecchione for his role in the wrongful conviction of a man who spent sixteen years in prison. Vecchione, as well as Hynes’s office, are defendants in a $150 million lawsuit brought by the wrongly convicted man, Jabbar Collins. A profile of Vecchione published by ProPublica last week examined the allegations against Vecchione and traced his controversial two-decade career as Hynes’s aggressive and loyal lieutenant.

Hynes, who has been criticized by some for opening his office to CBS’s cameras, has asked a federal judge to be spared testifying under oath about the Collins case.

Reuland, for his part, had no desire to discuss the office’s wider history of wrongful convictions or Vecchione. If wrong was done, he said, people will have to answer for it. He admires the work of the office, and respects many of the people who do that work. That said, he does not kid himself that injustices can’t and don’t happen.

“The moments of drama in real world prosecutions tend to be quiet moments,” Reuland added.

“Generally, in the world of law enforcement, there can be the belief that you—cops, prosecutors, judges—are doing God’s work, and that shortcuts can be forgiven,” Reuland said. “They can’t.”

Reuland, who has now authored four books, said his crime novels have all sought to explore the complicated, flawed, noble, human pursuit of justice. His first novel, Hollowpoint, traced the prosecution of a woman who accidentally killed a young girl. The prosecutor who handles the case had, years before, lost his own daughter in a car accident he was responsible for. The novel was shaped by two actual cases Reuland had prosecuted.

“The hunter and the hunted,” Reuland said, “are guilty of the same offense.”

“The moments of drama in real world prosecutions tend to be quiet moments,” Reuland added. “And so my books are not dramatic, not exciting. Perhaps that is why they are not bestsellers.”

Reuland, forty-nine, said he had soured a bit on the publishing business. His initial good reviews didn’t make his work lucrative. A couple of books failed to find publishers. Editors said his stuff wasn’t quite “real” enough.

Today, he is comfortable regarding himself, first and foremost, as a lawyer. He won a recent acquittal in a murder case. Real life, for this ex-Brooklyn DA, beats fiction.

“I’m more proud of some of the summations I’ve written,” he said, “than any of the books I’ve written.”

Joe Sexton is a senior editor at ProPublica. Before coming to ProPublica in 2013, he had worked for twenty-five years as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. Sexton served as Metropolitan Editor at the Times from 2006 to 2011, and his staff won two Pulitzer Prizes, including the award for breaking news for its coverage of Eliot Spitzer’s downfall. From 2011 to 2013, Sexton served as the paper’s Sports Editor, overseeing its coverage of the 2012 Summer Games in London and the Penn State scandal, among other major stories. The department under Sexton won a wide array of awards for its photography, art design and innovative online presentations. As a reporter, Sexton covered sports, politics, crime and the historic overhaul of the country’s welfare legislation. His work was anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting (Houghton/Mifflin.) Sexton is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, the father of four daughters.

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