By Chris Francescani and Jessica Dye
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Brooklyn District Attorney Charles "Joe" Hynes first took office in 1990, the New York City borough was one of the most violent urban areas in the United States.
Mobster John Gotti led the Gambino organized crime family, crack cocaine was epidemic and many of the plotlines for a TV show that debuted that year, "Law & Order," were pulled from cases Hynes was prosecuting.
And David Ranta was convicted of fatally shooting a Brooklyn rabbi.
Twenty-three years later, Brooklyn has undergone a renaissance, becoming home to movie stars, million-dollar condominiums and a record-low crime rate. And Ranta, now 58, is a free man, his conviction overturned last week when, upon review, the case against him fell apart.
The Ranta case may weigh on Hynes, 77, as he prepares to seek a seventh term in office. Hynes, who has deftly navigated Brooklyn's ethnic politics and sensational crime, suddenly appears vulnerable to younger challengers after a series of wrongful convictions by his office were overturned.
As the incumbent, Hynes remains the favorite in September's Democratic primary. The winner will be heavily favored against any Republican in the November general election.
When Ranta stepped out of the courtroom a free man for the first time since 1990, Hynes was a block away in his 19th-floor office overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, saying the Ranta case vindicated his Conviction Integrity Unit, created in 2011 to revisit questionable cases.
"It's very, very difficult to realize you've convicted an innocent man," Hynes told Reuters in an interview last Thursday, his shoulders slumping at the thought.
By turns charming, defensive, insightful and sarcastic, Hynes vigorously defended his record as an innovator who helped restore safety and prosperity to Brooklyn's patchwork of ethnic enclaves.
After an unexpectedly close primary challenge in 2005, Hynes said, he embarked on a "seven-year campaign" to reconnect with his constituents, promoting the dozens of social services and prison diversion programs he had created, including those that provide former prison inmates with job training and steer at-risk youth back into school.
"If they couldn't take me out then," said Hynes, "boy, you'll never take me out now."
Like other jurisdictions across the country, Brooklyn created its Conviction Integrity Unit in the face of increasing innocence claims that have been supported by advances in DNA evidence and forensic technology.
Hynes said the unit has cleared three people, including Ranta, and 14 more cases were under review.
But Hynes has pushed back in other high-profile wrongful convictions, including those of William Lopez and Jabbar Collins - each convicted of murder by Hynes's office in the early 1990s. Both spent years in prison for convictions that were recently overturned by federal judges.
One judge called Lopez's case "rotten from Day 1." Another said prosecutors' behavior in the Collins case was "shameful," "sad" and "beyond disappointing." A third said he was "puzzled" and "disturbed" by Hynes's defense of a top deputy who prosecuted the Collins case.
Hynes's opponents are using the cases against him.
"The people of Brooklyn deserve a DA who will insist from Day 1 that every case is investigated and prosecuted fairly and with integrity — and not just in an election year," said Kenneth Thompson, 47, a former federal prosecutor best known for representing in private practice the woman who accused the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of sexual assault in 2011.
Abe George, 34, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney who is also challenging Hynes, said the cases showed it was "time to reform" the district attorney's office.
Hynes, an Irish-American Catholic, has been accused of giving preferential treatment to political supporters, particularly the leaders of Brooklyn's insular, deeply religious Orthodox Jews.
In 2011, The Forward, an influential Jewish newspaper based in Brooklyn, said Hynes misled the public about the number of Orthodox Jewish sex offenders his office has prosecuted - itself a response to the newspaper's earlier complaints that Hynes allowed rabbis to handle criminal accusations within their secretive rabbinical courts.
Hynes, who denied shielding abusers, launched a program in 2009 to require sex abuse victims to report crimes directly to the district attorney rather than to community leaders. That has led to 112 arrests, a spokesman for Hynes has said.
"We always knew there was a problem," Hynes said of Orthodox Jewish reluctance to report crimes to authorities. "We just couldn't break through."
Hynes has since prosecuted several high-profile sex abuse cases, including one against ultra-Orthodox counselor Nechemya Weberman, which bitterly divided supporters of Weberman's young accuser against those convinced the counselor was set up.
Hynes said he took similar steps a decade ago to ensure sex abuse allegations against Catholic priests were reported directly to him, not church officials.
"We are now getting more and more information sent to us from religious leaders," Hynes said. "That's a breakthrough."
For years, Hynes has advocated social services as a component of law enforcement, creating the nation's first domestic violence unit and one of the first drug treatment alternative programs that keep users out of jail.
Hynes's social programs have been "validated many, many times over," said Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick. "But back in 1990 and 1991, Joe put his reputation on the line. It was risky."
In veiled references to his age, his rivals say Hynes has been in office too long and has grown complacent. Hynes smiled as he boasted he was in better shape at 77 than he was in his 50s, thanks to a daily workout and a diet inspired by Suzanne Somers.
"I'm going to serve as long as I can," he said. "Retirement is not an option for me."
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Douglas Royalty)