Former Queens County District Attorney John J. Santucci, who brought hope to first-time offenders even as his 14-year tenure was marked by controversy over his handling of some high-profile cases, died Sunday.
Santucci, the son of Italian immigrants and among the first in his family to attend college, went into cardiac arrest at home in Garden City and died at Winthrop-University Medical Center in Mineola. He was 85.
Born in Ozone Park in 1931, he was remembered by a grandson as a man of strength and character, who was never afraid to take up unpopular causes to defend what he thought was right.
Under Santucci’s leadership, the Queens DA’s office was among the first to have a Special Victims Bureau, said his grandson, John T. Santucci, 27, a political producer with ABC News.
Santucci also was recognized for expanding employment opportunities for those with disabilities, hiring people with physical and mental impairments to work as clerks for the DA’s office starting in the late 1970s.
“In terms of people with disabilities, he got a lot of pushback for that program,” John T. Santucci said. “It wasn’t something socially acceptable, but Pop didn’t give a damn. He thought everybody deserved a shot.”
The same held true for the Second Chance Program that Santucci established, which gave first-time offenders an opportunity to perform community service to expunge their records.
“It wasn’t a free pass,” his grandson said. “They had to pay back the community.”
A mentorship program that united the offenders with prominent members of the community — including teachers and clergy — has been duplicated elsewhere, he said.
Santucci was appointed Queens County district attorney in 1977 by then-Gov. Hugh Carey, and was subsequently elected to the post four times, wavering for years over whether to leave before retiring in 1991.
Current Queens DA Richard A. Brown said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of Santucci’s death.
“John spent his entire career in dedicated service to the people of Queens County,” he said.
But Santucci’s time as Queens County’s top prosecutor also was marked by controversy. He was criticized for sending to a special prosecutor a racially charged murder case in Howard Beach, one in which a young black man was pursued to his death on the Belt Parkway by a group of white men in 1986.
Santucci also was criticized about the indictment of four police officers and a sergeant on murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault charges in connection with the 1991 death of a suspected car thief in Forest Hills. A State Supreme Court justice dropped all charges against four of the men before they could go to trial. A Queens judge acquitted the fifth.
Before becoming DA, Santucci served as a member of the New York City Council in 1964, filling a vacancy. He was elected in 1968 to the New York State Senate, also to fill an open seat. He remained in the Senate until 1976.
A devoted father of six and a loving husband to his high school sweetheart, Edna Ann, for 62 years, Santucci also is survived by daughters Mary Santucci-Panvini of Franklin Square, Carol Santucci of Washington, D.C., and Edna Masone of Woodmere; and sons Robert Santucci of Long Island City, and Thomas J. Santucci and Dr. John Santucci, both of Garden City.
Services will be held Tuesday and Wednesday at Fairchild Sons Funeral Home in Garden City from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m.
A funeral will be held Thursday at St. Anne’s Church in Garden City at 10 a.m.