Whether or not you have ever practiced criminal law, retired Justice Joel Goldberg’s book will provide you insight into how cases are investigated, prosecuted, and tried in the Criminal Term in New York City. And you will appreciate the ‘war stories’—we all have them and enjoy sharing them. As its title suggests, the book chronicles Goldberg’s legal career from a young, freshly minted assistant district attorney in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to an experienced Acting Supreme Court Justice assigned to the Criminal Term in Brooklyn.
Although he addresses serious subjects such as sex crimes, murders, robberies and other criminal activity, Goldberg’s anecdotes are personal and revealing. You watch a young man move through the DA’s office, from trial assistant to supervisor and eventually the bench. Not afraid to share his mistakes with the reader, you gain insight into the mind of a prosecutor and subsequently a judge.
The book begins in June 1971, Goldberg’s first day in the Brooklyn DA’s office, where he was assigned to the Investigations Bureau. It brings us back to a time when crime was rampant and the crack epidemic at its peak.
In one of his earliest cases, Goldberg describes investigating allegations of date rape against a police officer. Today we forget that back in the 1970s, in order to prosecute a rape charge, the victim’s testimony had to be corroborated. Without either an independent eye witness to the rape or a confession by the accused, these cases could not be prosecuted. It was believed that these evidentiary requirements would protect men against being falsely accused. Such is not the case today and we realize that those evidentiary requirements were biased against women and demonstrated a lack of faith in the judicial system to properly investigate charges.
Following his stint in the Investigations Bureau, Goldberg was assigned to the Criminal Court Bureau for three months. He relates a story about picking up a case in arraignments involving a felony gun possession charge. When the case was called the defense counsel asked for a second call to discuss the possibility of a disposition with the young assistant. The defense counsel was seeking a reduction to a misdemeanor based on the defendant’s lack of a criminal record and the fact that the defendant was a full-time high school student living with his parents. Before agreeing to this, Goldberg noticed a man, he believed was a bureau chief leaning against the courtroom wall. He approached the man, introduced himself and laid out his reasons for offering a reduced charge and no jail to the defendant. The man listened and agreed. Pleased with himself, Goldberg returned to the well of the courtroom when the case was recalled and made the offer. The defendant immediately agreed and entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor. Soon after, another case was called, and the man Goldberg believed to have been the bureau chief stood up and announced “Murray Cutler” appearing for the defense. Needless to say, Goldberg was taken aback to realize that he had just obtained approval for a favorable defense disposition from a prominent defense attorney rather than a bureau chief.
After his stint to the Criminal Court Bureau, Goldberg was assigned to the Appeals Bureau, where he gained skills that would serve him well during the rest of his career. He learned how to write and argue. One of the appeals he argued involved the heroin conspiracy that formed the basis of the Academy Award winning movie, “The French Connection.”
He was appointed to the New York City Criminal Court in June 1987 by Mayor Edward Koch. He describes the judicial selection process which Koch established, removing politics from the process and creating a merit selection process.
The remainder of the book focuses on Goldberg’s 28 years on the bench. For the majority of his career, he presided in Brooklyn. He did, however, sit in both Queens and Staten Island for brief periods. As he recounts his trial experience, you see the legal process unfold through a judge’s eyes. His observations about the way the defense attorneys and prosecutors present evidence and argue legal issues is instructive as well as interesting.
In sum, Goldberg’s stroll down memory lane is a walk I enjoyed taking with him.