A Brief History of the Essex County Prosecutors Office

In 1776, the State of New Jersey ratified its first Constitution (superseded by later Constitutions in 1844 and 1947). Under this Constitution, the elected Governor appointed an Attorney General to enforce the laws of the State. The Attorney General in turn appointed deputies for the various counties, including Essex, to enforce the criminal laws on behalf of the local populace. In 1822, the New Jersey General Assembly passed an act authorizing a more independent Prosecutor of Pleas for each county, to be appointed by the Court of Quarter Session once every five years. A few years later, the Governor was given the authority to appoint each county’s Prosecutor of Pleas. On Feb. 20, 1829, Amzi Dodd became the first governor-appointed Prosecutor of Pleas for Essex County. The earliest record of prosecution by Prosecutor Dodd involves “a nuisance in suffering the water to stagnate and become offensive in the old burying ground” in Newark.

The first Prosecutor of Pleas worked alone, but by 1877 the Prosecutor required the help of a First Assistant. As Essex County grew and matters became more complex, the Office grew in size. By 1922, Prosecutor John O. Bigelow employed 28 men, including three Assistant Prosecutors, two Detective Captains, two Lieutenants, and various Detectives and clerks. In the 1920s and ’30s, cases involving gambling, organized crime, and official corruption were growing in number. In October of 1935, the nationally-known organized crime figures Dutch Schultz was shot at the Palace Chop House in Newark. Although the prime suspect was found hanged soon after the incident, the Office continued its investigation and identified Schultz’s real shooter who pled guilty to the murder in 1940. By 1945, the Office still had only three Assistant Prosecutors, despite a growing number of murder and gambling cases.

In 1951, Prosecutor Edward Gaulkin gained attention by successfully prosecuting four men charged with conspiracy, extortion, and bribery in the Newark milk scandal case. In 1959, Governor Robert Meyner nominated Brendan T. Byrne of West Orange as the 25th Prosecutor of Essex County. Prosecutor (and later Governor) Byrne served the Office until 1967. By 1962, there were 16 Assistant Prosecutors, most of whom were part-time employees. Shortly thereafter, the first female Assistant Prosecutor, June Strelecki, was appointed. Also during Byrne’s tenure, the “Charlie Squad” was formed, a name coined after members of the public were urged to report illegal gambling by calling a dedicated phone number and asking for “Charlie.” In 1967, the City of Newark experienced a week-long civil disturbance, which heralded a long-term social and economic change in Essex County. These transformations challenged future Prosecutors to respond to changing patterns and volumes of crime with increased professionalism and dedication.

By 1973, the legal staff numbered 63 lawyers, all full-time. County Investigators replaced the former Detectives and were increasingly selected from the ranks of experienced local police officers. Under Prosecutor George Schneider (Prosecutor from 1981 to 1986), the number of Assistant Prosecutors exceeded 100. Increasing resources were dedicated to special squads. The Homicide Squad was expanded and a Narcotics Section, which at first was a joint task force with the Sheriff’s Office, was created. Eventually, specialized units were established in Child Abuse, Sex Assault, Arson, Domestic Violence, Megan’s Law, and Gangs. In 1986, Governor Thomas Kean appointed the first African-American Prosecutor in Essex County (and only the second in the State), Herbert H. Tate, Jr. Computerization of the Office was begun and continued in stages throughout the terms of Prosecutor Tate and his successor, Prosecutor Clifford J. Minor. Also during their terms, a sexual assault case was brought against a group of high school athletes from Glen Ridge, who in 1993 were convicted for victimizing a 17-year-old mentally handicapped woman. This case was the subject of a popular book, a TV movie, and an episode on the TV show “Law & Order.”

In 1998, the first female Prosecutor, Patricia Hurt, was appointed by Governor Christie Whitman. Prosecutor Hurt was followed by Acting Prosecutor Donald Campolo and Acting Prosecutor Paula T. Dow. In the opening years of the 21st Century, the Office responded aggressively to increased auto theft and expanded youth gang activity. By 2003, it completed the second generation of computerization complete with e-mail and Internet access and increased its outreach to the public through its web site, its Victim-Witness Advocacy Office, and its Community Justice Program.

In 2005, Governor Richard Codey swore Acting Prosecutor Dow to the Office of Essex County Prosecutor. During Prosecutor Dow’s years of leadership, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office responded aggressively to evolving challenges in the law enforcement arena. The Office instituted vertical prosecution, increased its resources and outreach to victims and witnesses, opened a state-of-the-art crime scene facility, and participated in a wide variety of cross-agency / cross-jurisdiction collaborations including a state-federal anti-gang and narcotics task force, gun buy-back programs, and a successful fugitive safe surrender program held in Newark in November 2009. Prosecutor Dow also emphasized technology development, with the Office updating its computer server infrastructure in 2009 and planning for the implementation of an Office-wide, fully integrated electronic case and record management system.

In January 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appointed Prosecutor Dow as Acting Attorney General of the State of New Jersey. In her place, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino, then a 29-year ECPO veteran who gained public recognition in the trial and conviction of the high school athletes in Glen Ridge, was appointed Acting Essex County Prosecutor. In 2011, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and then-Attorney General Paula Dow appointed Carolyn A. Murray, an attorney having both prosecutorial and managerial experience at ECPO and the U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of New Jersey, as Acting Essex County Prosecutor. Laurino continued on at that time as the Acting First Assistant Prosecutor. The lawyers, detectives, and support staff who report to him will continue the work of Amzi Dodd into the 21st Century and are honored to be part of the Office of the Essex County Prosecutor.