Former Judge Richard A. Brown, Who Presided Over "Son of Sam" Killer, Dies at 86

Richard Brown - Getty - H - 2019
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Brown presided over David Berkowitz's arraignment in 1977 and ordered the 24-year-old — who had terrorized the city with a string of murders — to undergo psychiatric testing and maximum security confinement.

A longtime New York City prosecutor and judge who presided over the arraignment of "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz has died at the age of 86.

Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown died Friday, Chief Assistant District Attorney John M. Ryan announced Saturday.

Brown was first appointed district attorney in 1991 by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat. He was re-elected to six terms in office, running unopposed.

Brown announced in January that he would not seek re-election but would serve out the end of his term. Then in March he announced that he would step down on June 1 because of health problems associated with Parkinson's disease.

Brown was a judge for 18 years before serving as a prosecutor and was known universally as "Judge Brown."

As district attorney, Brown oversaw the creation of programs including drug courts, a domestic violence bureau, an office of immigrant affairs and most recently the Queens Treatment Intervention Program, intended to help opioid addicts avoid prosecution.

"He would often be the first person in the office and very likely the last to leave every day — and sometimes on weekends too," said Ryan, who will run the office until the election of a new district attorney in November.

Madeline Singas, the district attorney of neighboring Nassau County and a former assistant in Brown's office, said in a statement, "Judge Brown's unparalleled dedication to the victims of crimes and their families has motivated scores of prosecutors throughout New York State. He was a man of intelligence, integrity and honesty, and New York City is a safer place because of his hard work."

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. called Brown "an extraordinary lawyer who dedicated his life to public service" and said, "I will miss him greatly."

Brown continued to come into the office as his health failed, associates said.

"His mind was 100 percent sharp," said Arnie Kriss, a lawyer who ran Brown's first campaign for district attorney and spoke with him often over the years. "He has given the city of New York and the state of New York 60 years of service that can be only classified as outstanding."

Brown's 28 years as a prosecutor spanned an era that saw plunging rates of violent crime. The number of homicides in the city fell from more than 2,100 in 1991 to fewer than 300 last year.

While Brown and his fellow prosecutors were credited with helping make the city a far safer place, critics said his tough-on-crime policies contributed to shamefully high incarceration rates for black and Hispanic New Yorkers. Protesters chanted "Take down Dick Brown" last fall as they rallied outside a courthouse against what they called his "uniquely punitive policies."

Brown graduated from New York University's law school in 1956. He worked for the state assembly and served as Mayor John Lindsay's legislative representative in Albany before being appointed a criminal court judge in 1973.

He presided over Berkowitz's arraignment in 1977 under heavy security. Brown ordered the 24-year-old who had terrorized the city with a string of murders to undergo psychiatric testing and maximum security confinement.

"I remember the courtroom was packed to the rafters," Brown told the Associated Press in 2017. "It was almost like the air was taken out of the room when he walked in."

Brown's survivors include his wife, Rhoda; two daughters, a son and two granddaughters.