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Henry O'Brien, former Suffolk district attorney, dies at 85

Henry O'Brien at a news conference in Hauppauge

Henry O'Brien at a news conference in Hauppauge in 1975. Credit: Newsday/John H Cornell Jr

Henry F. "Harry" O'Brien, a lawyer who served one term as Suffolk County district attorney after becoming the first Democrat elected to the position, died last week at age 85, according to friends and colleagues.

The former public servant lost a battle with COVID-19 on June 15 at Good Shepherd Hospice in Port Jefferson, said attorney Justin Lite, who is handling O’Brien’s estate.

The Centereach resident was a lifelong bachelor who left behind no children or close relatives, according to friends.

They recalled the retired attorney’s legacy of public service, which included time in the Air Force and later establishing an anti-corruption unit as Suffolk’s top prosecutor after winning an election victory in 1974 alongside other local Democrats in post-Watergate times.

O’Brien served a term as district attorney that lasted until the end of 1977, one that included a two-year feud with then-Suffolk Police Commissioner Eugene Kelley, a Republican. The warring between the two led the governor to appoint special prosecutors who empaneled grand juries to investigate allegations of misconduct the leaders made against each other.

While district attorney, O’Brien’s office successfully prosecuted then-Suffolk Sheriff Philip Corso after investigating complaints that he pressured vendors to buy tickets to political functions by threatening to take away their jail contracts. Prosecutors during O’Brien’s tenure also won convictions against two defendants who took bribes from a builder in exchange for making sure county agencies rented space in a Hauppauge property.

"When I first took office, I pledged to root out corruption and I think this verdict enhances that pledge," O’Brien said after the 1976 verdict in the real estate case.

O’Brien was also district attorney when a jury in 1975 convicted "Amityville Horror" killer Ronald DeFeo Jr. of slaying his parents and four siblings in their beds as they slept.

"I’m extremely pleased the members of this jury realized the viciousness of the defendant and have removed a menace from our community," O’Brien said after that verdict.

But O’Brien lost his reelection bid and returned to private law practice soon after grand jurors concluded their work in connection with the allegations O’Brien and Kelley flung at each other. Both were cleared of criminal charges.

Friends said he took on felony cases for indigent clients, getting paid through the government, and was either terrible at collecting money from other clients or didn’t try. But they said he was a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom.

"He was surprisingly eloquent without any kind of preparation. He had a natural gift when he was in a courtroom," said Paul Gianelli, a retired defense attorney who served for a time as O'Brien top deputy in the district attorney's office.

"I hated looking at the back of his head," said Cornelius Rogers, a Southampton attorney. He worked for O’Brien as a young prosecutor before later having to watch the former district attorney approach jury boxes and charm the very panelists Rogers was trying to win over.

"He was a quiet man, a decent man who had strong character. Willing to listen, but at the same time, he knew what was right in his mind. And that is what he stood for and what he was going to argue for," said retired Suffolk Judge Michael Mullen, who presided in some of O'Brien's cases.

Born on Aug. 28, 1935, O’Brien grew up in Long Beach, where he worked as a lifeguard. He graduated from College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts in 1956 and Fordham University School of Law in 1959.

O’Brien "loved causes" and embraced his Irish heritage while also taking an active interest in Ireland’s political affairs, said Rogers.

A 1972 Newsday profile noted O’Brien, then an assistant district attorney, had spent a summer vacation in Northern Ireland to witness the bloodshed borne of strife between Catholics and Protestants. In 1989, O’Brien, then 53, and three others swam across the East River from Brooklyn to South Street Seaport as a form of activism.

A Newsday column said the swimmers were trying to bring attention to the cause of an Irish Republican Army member imprisoned in New York for six years – but without any U.S. charges – after he’d escaped prison in Northern Ireland and had been sentenced there in absentia to life in prison in the killing a British soldier.

O’Brien, who was to be cremated, was predeceased by his parents and sister, his estate attorney said.