Newsday TV's Ken Buffa and Newsday Suffolk Courts reporter Grant Parpan discuss Suffolk DA Ray Tierney's impact on bail reform, the Valva murder trial and the unsolved Gilgo Beach murders.  Credit: Randee Daddona

When Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney was sworn in last January, he entered office with a reputation as a by-the-book, law-and-order prosecutor.

Overseeing an office of more than 220 prosecutors helping to enforce the law for a county of 1.5 million residents, Tierney, 57, said in his first year he's worked to reorganize resources to best use all the tools available to keep bad actors off the streets.

“I think what really keeps me up at night is the responsibility of keeping people safe,” Tierney told Newsday in a recent interview from his office in Hauppauge. “Every time you get that text that there was a murder, your heart kind of drops.”

In year one, he hired what he called "a lobbyist" to work on criminal justice reforms in Albany, reactivated a gunshot detection program and unveiled a sweeping indictment against gang members in one of Suffolk’s most crime-ridden communities.


  • Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney oversees an office of more than 220 prosecutors helping to enforce the law for a county of 1.5 million residents.
  • Defense attorneys working alongside Suffolk’s prosecutors said Tierney has brought a level of professionalism to the office at a time when the court system is facing several obstacles.
  • The breakneck pace of his prosecutors for Tierney is one way to bring the criminal justice system back up to speed three years after the COVID-19 pandemic slowed everything.

Defense attorneys working alongside Suffolk’s prosecutors said Tierney, a Republican who defeated one-term incumbent Timothy Sini after spending three decades as a prosecutor locally and in New York City, has brought a level of professionalism to the office at a time when the court system is facing several obstacles.

'A perfect storm'

This past week in Riverhead, Tierney’s prosecutors were trying defendants in four courtrooms, maintaining a busy caseload he said is by both necessity and design.

For Tierney, the breakneck pace is one way to bring the criminal justice system back up to speed three years after the COVID-19 pandemic slowed everything. In 2020, attorneys and judges were pushed to remote working environments. Virtual technology was introduced into the courtroom to bridge a gap necessitated by social distancing. The accused without bail sat in jail cells with no certain trial dates.

Westhampton Beach defense attorney Dan Russo, the administrator of Suffolk’s assigned counsel program, called it a “very frustrating period.”

“We couldn't even sit with our clients,” Russo said. “We were doing a lot of video conferencing with them and trying to keep them up-to-date as best as possible.”

And COVID-19 was not the only factor in slowing things down, Tierney said, describing a trifecta of concerns he called a "perfect storm."

While bail reform approved in Albany in the months preceding the pandemic has garnered much attention, a second component of the reform package requiring prosecutors to speed up the timeline for turning over evidence “added to the burden of a prosecutor,” Tierney said.

And while proponents of bail reform point to data that shows the release of more defendants awaiting trial has not resulted in more crime, Tierney argues it has “incentivized” people to not return to court, resulting in an influx of warrants.

Tierney said his office has shifted resources to a unit working with law enforcement partners to make sure defendants appear.

“We've developed a warrant squad to go out and get those individuals and bring them into court so we can start the process,” he said.

The most recent data available from the state’s Office of Court Administration shows there were 98 more post-arraignment warrants issued in the first five months of Tierney’s tenure as district attorney than in the five months prior, though the number of arraignments also increased, meaning defendants failed to return to court at a similar rate each period.

Tierney said making administerial adjustments is only one step in overcoming challenges brought on by the new laws. He said he also must communicate with lawmakers on how his staff believes the reforms can be improved.

To that end, Tierney hired Maureen McCormick, a retired Nassau County prosecutor, as a part-time lobbyist working with lawmakers to advocate for changes to criminal justice reform. He also said he has personally met with area representatives to share his frustration with elected legislators creating the laws that determine if a person should be held before trial rather than relying on the discretion of judges and input from attorneys.

“We’re precluded from arguing … dangerousness in a bail application,” Tierney said. “Say in a case where you have this person who's a terrible person and no matter what, you can't ask for bail? That’s frustrating.”

In her State of the State address Jan. 10, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to improve New York's bail reform law by eliminating a provision that limits judges to applying the “least restrictive means” necessary to ensure a defendant’s return to court.

Hochul also announced she will increase state aid to deal with discovery demands.

In the interim, to solve the problem of backlogged cases, prosecutors have been redirected by Tierney out of their fifth-floor offices.

“I think what we've tried to do is change things a little bit, focus the resources of the office into the courtroom,” Tierney said. “In the district attorney's office, nothing really gets done without … moving cases to resolution, whether it's a plea or trial.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney spoke with Newsday about the progress his administration has made in his first year in office and what keeps him up at night. Credit: Randee Daddona

Office of Court Administration data shows that while Suffolk prosecutors handled roughly the same amount of new cases the past two years, dispositions increased nearly 25% in the first 11 months of 2022. Guilty pleas and trial verdicts both went up while the number of dismissals declined.

Defense attorney Anthony La Pinta of Hauppauge, counsel for the Suffolk County Democratic Committee, said it’s “in everyone’s interest to move these cases along as expeditiously as possible.”

La Pinta called Tierney “a breath of fresh air” and pointed to several structural changes the district attorney has made to keep moving cases along, including increased communication through meetings.

“His willingness to meet with defense lawyers to learn first hand the total picture of a case is what a top prosecutor should do,” La Pinta said.

“We didn’t have that before,” Russo added. “We don't get what we want in most instances, but we get an audience to be able to pitch our case.”

Guns, gangs and 'quality-of-life' crimes

A big proponent of ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection system, Tierney said the county had stopped using it before bringing it back last year. Suffolk secured grant money and approved $1.6 million in county funding for the program at the urging of both Tierney and Suffolk Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison in 2022.

Tierney said the technology helps improve the speed at which both police and DA investigators are able to arrive on scene following a shooting. That quickness increases his office’s chance at a successful prosecution, he said.

“Every time a shot gets fired, we're involved,” Tierney said of his office. “And we start the investigation … within seconds of learning that a shot is fired.”

The program is being rolled out in communities where gun violence is more likely to occur, county officials have said. Tierney said when law enforcement does not respond to a gunshot the public reported hearing, it has a “demoralizing effect” on a community.

In looking to bring ShotSpotter back, Tierney said law enforcement looked at data for “hot spots of violence.” They found that 50% of gun violence across Suffolk occurs in just 1% of the total area of the county, roughly nine communities where the technology is being deployed.

In 2022, county law enforcement announced a sweeping indictment against 18 members of a Mastic-Shirley street gang that Tierney said will be the model for his administration when it comes to combating gang activity in crime-ridden communities. He likened it to similar conspiracy indictments more common in federal court, where he previously worked as a prosecutor.

The indictment, announced in December, covered 31 separate alleged crimes dating to October 2021, according to Tierney, including six shootings, six armed robberies and the grand larceny or possession of 15 stolen vehicles.

Tierney said he expects to bring similar indictments against gangs operating in other communities, calling it his "obligation."

“We want to make sure that we effectively prosecute crimes in Suffolk County,” he said. “And then from there, I hope that provides confidence for the public.”

One area Tierney said he’s been “a little surprised” has been in the number of “quality-of-life crimes” his office is prosecuting — pointing specifically to retail and catalytic converter thefts.

Year-end data recently provided to Newsday by the Suffolk County Police Department showed the number of residential and commercial burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and larcenies all increased in 2022.

Speaking before the Suffolk County Legislature’s public safety committee Jan. 26, Harrison said police have created a special unit to help address these thefts. Tierney told Newsday he’s also committed additional resources to prosecute those cases.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, said in a statement that he's been pleased to see how well Tierney has worked with Harrison, who he appointed in 2021.

“I appreciate the strong working relationship that District Attorney Tierney has fostered with Commissioner Harrison and the Suffolk County Police Department which has helped keep our communities safe and has once again led to a reduction in violent crime," Bellone said.

Two high-profile cases

In February, Suffolk prosecutors will begin a second trial related to the death of 8-year-old Thomas Valva and the abuse of him and older brother Anthony. After winning a conviction of the boys’ father, Michael Valva, who was sentenced in December to 25 years to life in prison, prosecutors will now try his fiancee, Angela Pollina.

It’s a case loaded with intrigue and emotion, but Tierney said his trial team proved to be “prepared and professional” during the first trial, an assessment La Pinta, who was part of the defense team during the first trial, agreed with.

Tierney downplayed the challenges in securing a second conviction, even as Pollina’s defense points to a strategy that the father caused the boy’s death.

After the second trial, Tierney said the boys’ story will not end, saying there must be “an underlying investigation of how this happens.”

“We need to look at what happened and figure out how we can take steps to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again,” he said.

A sign along the west side of Ocean Parkway points...

A sign along the west side of Ocean Parkway points to Gilgo Beach on May 9, 2011. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

There’s been perhaps no more high-profile investigation in Suffolk over the past decade than the look into the bodies found at Gilgo Beach. Tierney is the third district attorney to serve since the investigation began and, despite all the frustration that has built up around it, he discusses the case with an optimistic point of view.

He said his office has been working with the various law enforcement partners involved in the case, including Suffolk and state police and the FBI.

“For the first time, we really are working well with our federal partners, with our local partners … and we've all been in the same room,” Tierney said. “Obviously, I'm not going to talk about specifics, but I feel really good with the investigative team we've been able to assemble and what we're doing.”

Ultimately, he said, the Gilgo case is about finding closure for the victims and their families.

“By solving it, you can say to the victims, and you can say to the families, ‘This matters and we did everything we can to try to solve the case,’ ” Tierney said. “We want to do that in the Gilgo case. And we want to do it in all cases.”

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