John Santucci, whose 14 years as Queens district attorney were ultimately defined by a deadly hate crime in Howard Beach and public corruption cases, died on Sunday at the age of 85.
Santucci succumbed to cardiac arrest at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola and was surrounded by his family at the time of his death. His grandson, ABC News producer John T. Santucci, confirmed his death in a Tweet.
“He was a family man first. He lived for his family,” John T. Santucci said to QNS about his grandfather. “He was our patriarch, he was our champion and he was our hero.”
The elder Santucci became Queens DA in 1977, when he was appointed to the post by then-Governor Hugh Carey after the previous prosecutor, Nicholas Ferraro, was appointed to a judicial seat. Santucci would be elected the following year and later re-elected three more times before retiring in 1991.
A native of Queens born in 1931, Santucci graduated from Ozone Park‘s John Adams High School and Jamaica‘s St. John’s University Law School in 1953, after which he entered into private practice in Manhattan.
Santucci became active in local politics as a member of the Democratic party. He served terms in the City Council and the state Senate before Carey appointed him as chief prosecutor of Queens. Soon after being elected to the office the first time, Santucci made unsuccessful bids to be elected as state attorney general and to a U.S. Senate seat.
During his time as Queens DA, Santucci launched a number of innovative programs designed to prosecute the borough’s most heinous offenders while also giving other convicted juvenile offenders a chance to reform their lives.
Santucci established the Special Victims Bureau, a unit dedicated to investigating and prosecuting sex crimes across the borough. He would appoint Geraldine Ferraro, who was one of the office’s prosecutors at that time, as the bureau’s first chief.
In 1985, Santucci also created the “Second Chance” initiative, partnering with local community and religious groups to give first-time, juvenile offenders a shot at avoiding a life of crime. The participants in the program performed community service with the partner organizations; the program was subsequently emulated by other district attorneys’ offices across the state and country.
The district attorney was thrust into the national spotlight in 1986 following one of the nation’s most notorious hate crimes: the murder of Michael Griffith, a black man who was attacked by a group of white teenagers in Howard Beach. The group assaulted Griffith, then chased him on foot onto the Belt Parkway, where he was fatally struck by a car. The crime spurred demonstrations across the city and nation demanding that those responsible be brought to justice.
According to The New York Times, Santucci recused himself from the case after two of the defendants and their attorneys accused his office of trying to cover up evidence. Santucci denied the accusations but turned the case over to a special prosecutor, Charles J. Hynes, who would go on to secure manslaughter convictions against several of Griffith’s attackers. Hynes would later become Brooklyn district attorney.
That same year, Santucci prosecuted John A. Zaccaro, husband of then-Congresswoman Ferraro, and Judicial Administrator Francis X. Smith on charges that they allegedly tried to secure a bribe from a cable television company seeking to launch service in Queens. Zaccaro was acquitted of the charges, but Smith was convicted and served two months in prison.
Santucci retired as Queens DA in 1991 and was replaced by Richard A. Brown, who remains in the post as the longest-serving chief prosecutor in the borough’s history.
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my predecessor, John Santucci,” Brown said in a statement on Monday. “John spent his entire career in dedicated service to the people of Queens County, serving as a prosecutor, a member of the City Council and the state Senate, and finally as District Attorney. John’s wife, Edna, and their entire family remain in our thoughts and prayers.”
Following his retirement, Santucci was active with a number of Queens organizations including Jamaica Hospital, where his brother, Thomas, heads the Cardiology Department, and the Metro Queens Boys & Girls Club. He also established a scholarship at Touro Law School. He resided in Garden City, but also spent much of his time at his second home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“For us, Pop was very good at making you see an argument from all different perspectives,” John T. Santucci said in remembering his grandfather. “He was amazing at making you think more and push yourself. He didn’t expect failure from anybody. He was the toughest man I knew, but he strived to show you that you can succeed in anything you want if you put your mind to it.”
A resident of Garden City prior to his death, District Attorney Santucci is survived by his wife of 62 years, Edna Ann; three sons; three daughters; two brothers; and 12 grandchildren.
A wake for Santucci is being held on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 28-29, at Fairchild Funeral Home in Garden City, with a Mass of Christian Burial scheduled for Thursday morning at Garden City’s St. Ann’s Church.
Updated June 29, 10:30 a.m.