Frank J. Clark III, the Brooklyn-born, hard-charging prosecutor who loomed as one of Western New York’s best known political and legal figures during 12 years as Erie County’s Democratic district attorney, died Friday evening in Buffalo General Medical Center after a long illness. He was 74.
Clark’s health declined in recent months after the failure of a 2016 kidney transplant operation he had hoped would reverse a long struggle with lupus and kidney disease. He emerged from an Easter evening surgery hopeful of an “Easter miracle,” but friends noted he maintained a typically philosophical attitude even when the transplant failed and throughout the difficult days that followed.
“Having a serious illness is humbling,” Clark said of his health issues in a 2015 interview with The Buffalo News. “It makes you look at the world in a very different way.”
Respected even by opponents in the classic tradition of the legal profession, Clark will be remembered as an often controversial district attorney who left a lasting imprint on the office.
“He was as fair a prosecutor as I have ever encountered,” said veteran defense attorney Joel L. Daniels. “He set the mold. And I hope future occupants of that office will follow his lead.”
Clark also was known for his extensive entourage of friends and devoted employees, as well as the ruddy face that turned even redder when confronted by critics or a too inquisitive reporter. As district attorney and later as a popular pundit, his ubiquitous radio and television appearances radiated a knowledge of the law conveyed in the Brooklyn twang he never lost – even though he moved to Buffalo at age 7.
“It was his trademark,” observed Salvatore R. Martoche, the retired Appellate Division justice who was Clark's close friend for 60 years.
“No one in the history of government and politics in Western New York could match him for the 20-second sound bite,” Martoche added. “It all revolved around Irish blarney combined with a tremendous confidence that put people at ease.”
Clark was the son of an automobile salesman – Frank J. Jr. – who moved his family to Buffalo in the late 1940s to work at Keyser Cadillac. His mother, Mary, was a retail sales executive. Clark graduated from Canisius High School in 1960 and from Niagara University in 1964, earning a bachelor’s degree in classical languages. He received his law degree from the University at Buffalo Law School in 1967.
The new attorney then followed a non-traditional career path, signing up for the Marine Corps and serving as a combat platoon leader in Vietnam from November 1968 to December 1969. Upon his return home, he was assigned to Division Legal, where he prosecuted more than 200 courts martial and was discharged a captain. His prized Mameluke sword worn by Marine officers hung in any office he later occupied as a lawyer.
Martoche said their many long talks over the years (Clark with a Scotch whisky, Martoche with an Irish) only recently delved into his Vietnam experience.
“The heroism he displayed in Vietnam was extraordinary,” he said, adding he believed the Marine experience molded his friend into a “person of great character.”
“He did his best for the people you never hear about; people on the lower rungs,” he said. “And Frank would often turn things around for them with a little bit of compassion.”
Clark began his legal career as an assistant district attorney before moving to the law firm of Moot and Sprague. He later served as an assistant U.S. attorney and key member of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.
When he succeeded the late Kevin M. Dillon as district attorney in 1997, Clark already had made his mark as an experienced prosecutor. He gained widespread attention as the assistant district attorney who prosecuted two Buffalo police officers and another man in the 1977 beating death of Richard Y. Long and the murder of two Buffalo college students by Larry Campbell. He rose through the ranks to spend 8 1/2 years as Dillon’s top assistant.
In 1996 he defeated Russell P. Buscaglia, now a state Supreme Court justice, to win the first of his three terms as the county's top prosecutor. In 2000 and 2004 and in acknowledgement of his political popularity, he ran with no Democratic opposition and was cross-endorsed by Republicans. One story in The News at the time of his retirement labeled him the “Teflon man of Erie County politics.”
But some of the Teflon began to erode amid criticism of his handling of several cases, especially those involving Anthony J. Capozzi and Lynn M. DeJac Peters, who were later found to be wrongfully imprisoned. Peters was charged in 1993 with strangling her 13-year-old daughter, convicted the following year and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. She was released in 2007 after police uncovered DNA evidence from the victim’s body that was traced to another man.
Capozzi was arrested in 1985, was convicted and spent 22 years in prison for raping two women in Delaware Park. He was freed after testing of DNA evidence that sat in storage for decades proved the women were victims of Altemio Sanchez, the Bike Path Killer.
In both cases, Clark defended the performance of the criminal justice system, refusing to call for new trials or dismissal of charges until he found ironclad evidence.
“A lot of people have feeling for this case based on sympathy,” Clark said of the Peters case. “I don’t have the luxury of having my feelings be guided by anything other than the law.”
Clark faced some of his stiffest criticism in 2009, after he had left office. Former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha, a one-time top assistant to Clark, had spent months reviewing evidence he claimed linked former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon to a host of election law violations. Sacha charged that Clark and his successor, Frank A. Sedita III, looked the other way because of Pigeon’s political prowess.
Clark and Sedita denied the charges. And then-Gov. David A. Paterson denied Sacha’s request for a special prosecutor, though his counsel – Peter J. Kiernan – declared that a “pattern” of election law violations existed in Erie County.
But even after retreating to retirement homes in Arizona and near Chautauqua Lake, Clark seemed to only grow in public stature. He dissected complicated legal questions for reporters on radio, television and for newspapers, and continued as a major public figure.
Among the many honors he received was the Founders Medal in 2005 from his alma mater, Niagara, for service to the community and university. He also received the Outstanding Prosecutor Award from the New York State Bar Association and the Hogan Award, the highest honor bestowed by the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, where he served as president from 2005-2006.
The Amherst Gaelic League named him Irishman of the Year in 2001.
Clark was a member of the UB Law School Dean’s Advisory Council, the Executive Committee of the Greater Niagara Frontier Council of the Boy Scouts of America (Scouter of the Year in 2008), and was president of the 100 Club of Buffalo.
He and his wife, the former Catherine Kennedy, whom he married in 1973, were avid bird watchers and members of the Jamestown Audubon Society. He once told a feature writer for The News that he enjoyed “cooking in the company of old friends,” and that the law still excited him professionally.
“What used to excite me is summing up a major lawsuit. That was a high that professionally you just don’t get another way,” he said. “Now the joy is when I see the younger lawyer prevailing under difficult circumstances. It’s vicarious, but it gives me pleasure.”
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a sister, Marylou.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered Thursday at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, 651 Washington St.