Setting the Record Straight in a 1950 Brooklyn Homicide Case

I never met my grandfather, James McGough, as he died 20 years before I was born. But as much as an ancestor I’ve never met could be, he has been an influence on me, and lately, on my writing. He spent the majority of his career as a homicide prosecutor in Kings County, better known as Brooklyn, NY.

Born in Brooklyn in 1906, he attended the legendary Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush. As was common in his day, he did not attend college before entering law school. He graduated from Fordham Law School (also my alma mater) in the rather inauspicious year of 1929. Within a few years, he was hired to be an Assistant District Attorney in his home borough. By the 1940s, he had become one of the Brooklyn D.A.’s chief homicide prosecutors. My father has told me about going to court as a boy and watching him try cases.

My grandfather while trying a murder case in a Brooklyn courtroom (circa late 1940s)

As an officer in the U.S. Navy, during World War II

Recently, I found a box of courtroom transcripts and legal papers from murders that he prosecuted in the 1940s and 1950s. In among the yellowed documents detailing mid-century murder trials was a six-page affidavit, filed with the Kings County Court in April 1950, regarding a manslaughter case my grandfather had prosecuted the previous fall. The defendant, a man named John P. Hart, had been convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Months after the sentencing, a front-page headline in “a certain afternoon newspaper” criticized the sentence as insufficiently severe. As evidenced by the affidavit, my grandfather felt compelled to set the record straight in some public and lasting way. For as he concludes, “I think it is a very bad thing to allow the public to go on believing that perhaps the story that originated in this afternoon paper did reflect a true picture; and while it will not do anything to bring back the deceased, it will at least keep the record straight…”

Notwithstanding how long ago the murder occurred, its obscurity in the annals of Brooklyn homicides, and the likelihood that everyone who once was personally invested in this case is no longer with us, I found my grandfather’s statement unexpectedly riveting and inspiring to read. I thought I would share it here in the same spirit.

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