Lorraine Gerson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Newark who was the nation’s oldest-serving federal prosecutor, died Monday at age 89.
Gerson, who handled financial crimes and fraud cases for four decades at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, kept on working far past the age when most other people retire. Although she took leave late in 2018 to battle cancer, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said Gerson prosecuted more defendants for the year than most other assistant U.S. attorneys in the office.
“Lorraine just had a passion for the work. Many of us had a chance to see her in the last few days before she passed, and she was still talking about cases. She really cared about achieving justice for victims,” Carpenito said.
Gerson was in her early 40s when she graduated from Seton Hall University School of Law in 1971. She grew up in Harlem and the Bronx, where she did not learn to read until the fourth grade. She attended Brooklyn College, and worked nights for Bloomingdale’s, rising from saleswoman to buyer, before marrying and having three children. She decided to attend law school when her youngest child started school.
After law school, Gerson landed a job with the state attorney general. She initially was assigned to the Office of Consumer Affairs but later went on to run the unit representing the Division of Youth and Family Services.
“That was like God’s work—it [DYFS] was a huge agency. The world’s problems were this agency’s problems—neglected, abused children, parents who were desperately trying to cope. I was proud of that time,” she said in a 2018 short film about her career that was produced when she received an award from the New Jersey Women Lawyers Association.
In 1979, she was recruited to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“My boss, Robert Del Tufo, who became U.S. attorney, asked me to come over with him, and I did become an assistant U.S. attorney, and just loved the work. I got there in 1979 and I’m still there and I hope to stay there forever,” Gerson said in the film.
“The best thing about the job at the U.S. Attorney’s Office is the sense that you can make a difference. You can help people who are the victims of crimes and people who commit crimes. I just love it,” she said in the video.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who was Gerson’s colleague and then her supervisor while he worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said knowing her “changed my life for the better. She was larger than life and she will be missed.”
Grewal said Gerson shared “war stories” of being in a courtroom and having other attorneys think she was a secretary and not a lawyer. Grewal, who is the son of Indian immigrants and is the nation’s first Sikh attorney general, said he felt a kinship with Gerson because he has had similar experiences in court, being taken for a translator.
“It was something she struggled through—she did challenge norms and challenge conventions of what a prosecutor should look like. She encouraged others to do it as well,” Grewal said.
Gerson, who handled many tax cases, had a work product “as good as any of the other prosecutors in our section,” Grewal said.
Her desire to keep working into her later years is tied to her choice of a legal career after raising her family, Grewal said. “She was one of the few people that genuinely had a complete passion for public service and helping others.”
After a criminal trial was over, Gerson sometimes wished defendants good luck and encouraged them to move past their mistakes, said Peter Till, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in Newark. Till said in most of the cases where he went up against Gerson, his client felt the outcome of the case was fair.
Defense lawyers seeking a lenient sentence for their clients could find Gerson reluctant to compromise, said Lawrence Horn, a white-collar defense lawyer at Sills Cummis & Gross in Newark who was Gerson’s adversary in numerous cases.
“There was very little gray in her opinion of things. It often took more than one meeting to try to come to resolutions as we would present different sides,” Horn said.
“I think she liked being who she was. She liked the activity, she liked the challenge, she liked people and she thought she was doing the right thing,” Horn said.