Western New York lost another memorable personality when former District Attorney Frank J. Clark III died Friday evening in Buffalo General Medical Center.
Clark was 74 and had been in declining health in recent months battling lupus and kidney disease.
While it may sound trite, this is true: Clark was one of a kind. He was brash. He was bold. He was unafraid to say what was on his mind. Most of all, he possessed a deep knowledge of the law that challenged opponents and informed the public.
As his good friend, Salvatore R. Martoche, the retired Appellate Division justice, said, “He did his best for the people you never hear about; people on the lower rungs.”
To have a conversation with Clark, even a brief one, was to come away impressed by his sharp wit and frankness. Attempting to match Clark sound bite for sound bite would just result in frustration for political opponents, as was attempting to overcome his prowess in discouraging election opponents. He won re-election twice as the candidate of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Talking with Clark was easy and enjoyable. That – and not because he was the boss – explains how he could capture such a wide circle of friends and colleagues.
Clark’s circuitous route to Erie County’s head prosecutor began when he received his law degree from the University at Buffalo Law School in 1967. He signed up for the Marine Corps and served as a combat platoon leader in Vietnam. After leaving the war zone he was assigned to Division Legal, where he prosecuted more than 200 courts-martial before being discharged as a captain.
In a sign of how much his service as a Marine meant to him, Clark prominently displayed in whatever office he occupied his prized Marine sword.
It was Clark’s later march on the legal front most Western New Yorkers are familiar with – from his posting as an assistant district attorney, then to the law firm of Moot & Sprague before returning to prosecution as an assistant U.S. attorney and key member of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. He eventually succeeded the late Kevin M. Dillon as district attorney in 1997 and served three terms as the county’s top prosecutor.
Clark was recognized by both the state Bar Association and state District Attorneys Association, which he served as president from 2005-2006. Among other honors, the Amherst Gaelic League named him as its Irishman of the Year in 2001.
Clark could make a media splash with his turn of phrase and his red-faced, forceful delivery in news conferences.
He sent innumerable criminals to jail, but is perhaps best known for his connection to two innocent people who were sent to jail. Anthony J. Capozzi was convicted of raping two women. Lynn M. DeJac Peters was convicted of killing her daughter. The convictions happened under previous administrations, but as evidence began to surface that they were innocent, Clark staunchly defended the proceedings that sent them to jail. They remained behind bars until Clark had what he considered ironclad evidence of their innocence.
The prosecutor did not go quietly into retirement after his 12 years as DA. He remained a popular commentator on legal matters, white hair framing his ruddy face as he boiled complicated legal matters down to their essentials for the lay audience.
Clark was a true public servant respected by all corners of the legal profession.