Cyrus Vance, who prosecuted Weinstein and Trump Organization, reflects on career Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance looks back on a career of big-name cases, including cases against the Trump Organization and Harvey Weinstein.

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance reflects on Trump and Weinstein cases as he leaves office

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of the nation's most high-profile prosecutors is stepping down after 12 years. As NPR's Ilya Marritz reports, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. leaves a legacy of tangling with powerful people in court. And a warning - this story includes explicit sexual language and imagery.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: It's one of the most iconic jobs in American law enforcement.

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MARRITZ: The year Cyrus Vance Jr. was sworn in, "Law & Order," which showcased the work of a fictional Manhattan district attorney, was canceled. But it's had a long afterlife in spinoffs and on demand.

CYRUS VANCE JR: When I look at sort of the why Manhattan was the "Law & Order" TV show, it's because we are in the middle of so much that happens in criminal justice.

MARRITZ: It's true. And while the TV DA prosecuted accused burglars and murderers, Cy Vance Jr., who's 67 with a full head of silver hair, will likely best be remembered for his face-offs with famous names. In 2015, a model named Ambra Battilana Gutierrez walked into a police precinct and lodged a complaint against film producer Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault. She even made a recording of herself talking with Weinstein the next day.

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AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: Why yesterday you touch my breast?

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Oh, please. I'm sorry. Just come on in. I'm used to that.

GUTIERREZ: You're used to that?

WEINSTEIN: Yes, come in.

MARRITZ: Vance chose not to charge Weinstein - a decision that sparked outrage when it later came to light. Vance says the evidence wasn't strong enough at the time. But three years later, with new witnesses ready to testify, Vance indicted Weinstein. He attended the trial and considers Weinstein's conviction for rape a major accomplishment of his office.

VANCE: It was Manhattan that ultimately ended up deciding to take on a case that was enormously challenging but important to do. And we did it.

MARRITZ: This year, Vance became the first prosecutor to indict a former president's family business. The Trump Organization pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes. The trial could begin as soon as next summer. Vance sees his investigation as picking up where the Justice Department left off in 2018 when federal prosecutors convicted Michael Cohen for an illegal campaign contribution, but they didn't charge Donald Trump who allegedly directed the scheme and who by then had become president.

VANCE: When they closed that investigation, we were prepared to go forward. This office has always taken on big cases and not infrequently taking on big cases that other institutions chose not to.

MARRITZ: Trump went to the Supreme Court twice to block Vance's evidence gathering. Even though Trump lost, he slowed Vance's investigation for over a year.

VANCE: That said, when we did receive the documents in March of 2021, it was only four months until we had the indictment filed. So I don't think we could've pushed any faster.

MARRITZ: When it comes to charging defendants, one fact really stands out. Today, the district attorney brings about 42,000 cases a year. When Vance took office, it was over 100,000. Manhattan prosecutors are no longer routinely charging for nonviolent offenses like loitering or smoking pot in public. Vance says it came from the realization that Black and brown people were disproportionately affected and that even one night spent in jail on a relatively minor charge could wreck a defendant's life.

VANCE: I have evolved, and my willingness to think differently and more actively about what we shouldn't be doing has evolved.

MARRITZ: Tina Luongo from the Legal Aid Society says Vance gets points for funding alternatives to cash bail. But it was pressure from advocates and new legislation that really pushed down the total number of prosecutions.

TINA LUONGO: I don't think he can take the credit for that. We had the city council pass city law. We also had state law change. We also litigated. We sued him many times.

MARRITZ: With just days left in office, Vance is well aware he won't be able to see through one lawsuit for which he'll definitely be remembered - the fraud case against the Trump organization. He's OK with that.

VANCE: There's a danger in always feeling that you have to be the one to be there. Sometimes, the wisest thing is to - you know, is to - in a public institution, is to bring someone else in where - so that institution can grow, evolve beyond where you left it.

MARRITZ: Incoming Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg is no newbie to suing Trump. As a state prosecutor, he helps bring a successful civil case against the Trump Foundation in which Donald Trump acknowledged personally misusing charitable funds.

For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York.

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