In 1776, the State of New Jersey ratified its first Constitution (superseded by later Constitutions in 1844 and 1947).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 be half 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 a 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 30’s, cases involving gambling, organized crime and official corruption were growing in number. In October of 1935, the nationally-known organized crime figure 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 it s 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 coinedafter 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 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 a second generation of computerization complete with e-mail and Internet access and increased its outreach to the public through its web site (www.njecpo.org), 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 February 2011, Gov. Christie appointed Carolyn A. Murray as Acting Essex County Prosecutor. As Acting Prosecutor, she has made victims’ rights a high priority. In addition, the Mental Health Unit was created during her tenure, providing new options to prosecutors and defense attorneys when dealing with offenders who have a history of mental illness. During Acting Prosecutor Murray’s term, the Office prepared for the challenge of implementing the legislative bail reform mandate which went into effect on January 1, 2017. Called the New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act, this law effectively eliminated cash bail. In preparation, Murray oversaw the implementation of an integrated, office-wide case database system for case management and investigation management.
In July 2017, Gov. Christie appointed Acting Prosecutor Murray to a judgeship on the Superior Court bench. Once again, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino stepped in as Acting Prosecutor, guiding the Office through a time of continuing transition and adaptation to changing criminal justice policies and technology. In September of 2018, Governor Phil Murphy named Theodore N. Stephens II, then serving as the Essex County Surrogate, as Acting Essex County Prosecutor. In 2020, as the COVID pandemic swept the nation, Acting Prosecutor Stephens led ECPO through a time of crisis and challenge, directing the ECPO management team as it worked to protect the health and safety of all ECPO employees and all others who come into contact with ECPO, while maintaining essential criminal justice functions and public safety.
With thanks to Francis D. Falivena, Jr., Assistant Prosecutor (Retired), an ECPO history enthusiast.