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Marcia Clark became a household name after her televised prosecution of O.J. Simpson in 1995. While Harvey Weinstein won’t receive the same wall-to-wall cable coverage, in the social media age his upcoming trial could similarly boost the profile of Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon.
A lifelong Staten Islander, middle child and Catholic school alumnus, the 57-year-old career prosecutor has worked in the DA’s office since graduating from St. John’s University School of Law in 1988 — excluding a brief hiatus in 2015 when she unsuccessfully ran for district attorney in her home borough. (Though she ran as a Republican, Illuzzi-Orbon was endorsed by both the Democratic-leaning New York Daily News and the Rupert Murdoch-controlled New York Post as well as several organizations and individuals on both sides of the aisle, many of whom said she would have been the most qualified person ever elected to that position.) During the race, Illuzzi-Orbon told the Staten Island Advance that she felt called to become a prosecutor during her second year of law school — while interviewing at BigLaw firms.
Illuzzi-Orbon is no stranger to high-stakes trials. Perhaps the most famous was securing a conviction for the 1979 kidnapping and murder of Etan Patz, 6, nearly 40 years after Patz disappeared in SoHo on his way to his school bus stop. After an initial mistrial, a second jury found Pedro Hernandez guilty, and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Illuzzi-Orbon’s cold-case skills will come in handy in Weinstein’s trial, as the charges he’s standing trial for were committed between 2006 and 2013.
In advance of the trial, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance and his office have been barred from making extrajudicial statements about the case, but back in October 2018, DA Office spokesman Danny Frost described Illuzzi-Orbon as “one of the finest trial lawyers in the nation, with unparalleled expertise in high-profile cold cases.”
The producer’s former attorney Benjamin Brafman previously faced off with Illuzzi-Orbon in the 2011 sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French politician and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund. That case was dismissed just a few months after the indictment because of issues surrounding the alleged victim’s credibility. “I have always found her to be a consummate professional who does her job very well,” says Brafman of Illuzzi-Orbon, but he (understandably) won’t talk about her current work.
Weinstein won’t be Illuzzi-Orbon’s first celebrity trial. In 2007, she prosecuted Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter Jr. and Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins on weapons charges — both were represented by Manhattan defense attorney Stacey Richman and took plea deals. Because of the fact-specific nature of criminal law, Richman says the prosecutor’s past work doesn’t hint at her coming strategy — but it does show her passion. “She calls herself a soldier in the army of the District Attorney’s Office,” says Richman. “She is a true believer and seeks to serve what she perceives is just.”
Evan Krutoy, a veteran prosecutor turned defense lawyer, says his former colleague’s work isn’t affected by the name, stature or wealth of the defendant. “She is a great investigator and people are very comfortable discussing difficult topics with her,” he says, adding that in the courtroom, “she presents as thorough, thoughtful and heartfelt.”
Krutoy adds that while many of Illuzzi-Orbon’s cases have made headlines, it’s the ones the media has overlooked that may best exemplify her career — the cases involving victims who struggled with drug use, poverty or “lived on the fringes of society.” Notes Krutoy, “It would not be uncommon for victims who Joan worked with to visit her or call her years later to thank her — not simply because she did her job well but also because it was clear she cared deeply.”
In her role as special counsel, Illuzzi-Orbon also designed the Manhattan DA Office’s protocol for responding to terrorist attacks, mass casualty crimes and attacks on critical infrastructure; she also served as chief of its hate crimes unit.
Illuzzi-Orbon and her personal injury lawyer husband, John Orbon, have two adult children. When she’s not in the courtroom, she’s an adjunct professor at her alma mater St. John’s. Says Dean Michael Simons, “Someone as talented as Joan Illuzzi could be making much more money in the private sector, but she’s chosen to devote herself to vindicating the victims of crime — whether it’s the family of Etan Patz or women who have been sexually assaulted or countless other victims of less high-profile crimes.”
This story appears in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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