Her features are unmistakably Irish, but Nassau County, L.I. District Attorney Kathleen Rice, 44, first visited Ireland in 2002. Although in conversation she admits to being “1,000% Irish,” walking off the plane to compete in the 2002 Dublin City Marathon, she was still surprised to discover how at home she felt in the country she was visiting for the first time.
“I’m a redhead and I have freckles and I’ve always thought of myself as the odd one out even in my own family,” Rice, a Democrat, says. “Until I visited Ireland, that is. I finally saw other women who had more freckles than me! I said to myself, now I know where I come from. I realized I was among my tribe.”
Rice’s paternal grandfather came to America when he was 12 years old in 1892. The eldest of 10 children, his family had been struggling in Ireland and eventually told him, “You’re going to go to America and you’re to make a life for yourself and for all of us.”
He had $20 in his pocket when he came across on a steamer to Boston. “He ended up building a very successful construction company under his own name,” says Rice. “He was able to bring over his brothers and sisters who wanted to come in very short order.”
Rice’s own father, Lawrence, was born in the U.S. and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens where he received a classic Irish American education at Queen of Martyrs, then Frances Xavier, then Fordham University.
Rice’s mother, Christine, whose family hailed from counties Roscommon and Sligo, met Lawrence at Fordham and they got married in 1953. They started the family a year later with the birth of Lawrence Junior, and they moved to Garden City, Nassau County the same year.
Says Rice, “They proceeded to have 10 kids, as all good Irish Catholic families do. Go fourth and populate the earth, as they say! They really took that advice literally.
“Interestingly, my mother was an only child, and my father had two brothers and a sister, but his sister and brother had 10 children each. The other brother only had six! There were 36 first cousins in all. We were a very big family.”
In a career that had her working for years as a prosecutor in Brooklyn in one appalling murder case after another, it’s heartening to see that the experience hasn’t diminished Rice’s sense of fun.
“I was in Kings County’s District Attorney Joe Hynes’ office for eight years and then I was promoted to the Homicide Bureau, so all I did was prosecute murder cases,” says Rice. “It was some of the most exhausting but gratifying work I’ve done.
“The first murder case I tried involved a female defendant who brutally executed a young man, named Shaun Phillips. He was 20 or 21 when he died and his family was devastated by it. When the jury came back and they said guilty I remember thinking, this is such a great day. Until I turned around and I saw the grieving family.”
Phillips’ relatives were crying in the front row of the court. It was a profound moment for Rice because she realized that, although it’s important that people accused of violent crimes be punished, especially for crimes like murder, nothing she could do could ever make the affected family whole again.
Growing up, Rice’s parents always stressed the importance of finding a passion and pursuing it. Hopefully, they taught her, it would be something that would give back to the community, too.
“From the time I went to law school, knew I wanted to be a prosecutor. I wanted to be a voice for those who didn’t have a voice,” Rice says.
“When I began prosecuting murder cases it was bittersweet. It’s important work and you have to convict these people, but at the end of the day there’s a family whose lives have been ruined too.”
When the opportunity to become a federal prosecutor came Rice jumped at the chance because it was a complete 180-degree shift from what she’d been doing until that moment.
“I began to prosecute white collar crime, which was a great experience,” she says.
Her successes as a prosecutor made her more confident of her abilities, so much so that she eventually felt emboldened to do what her advisors said was crazy — take on a 30 year incumbent Nassau district attorney who had no intention of vacating the post.
Says Rice, “I had other plans. I was very confident that the county was ready for a change. I don’t know if (Denis Dillon) had ever had a real viable opponent before. But I had local and federal prosecuting experience and my roots were deep in the community.”
Being the first female candidate, Rice was a trailblazer.
To the extent that Nassau County had until that point been very insular in terms of the criminal justice system, there had never been a female district attorney, and all of the major law enforcements posts were held by men, as was common. Even now there are 62 district attorneys across the state of New York, and only 11 or 12 of us that are women.”
In the race to get elected, Rice decided not to think about the groundbreaking aspects of her campaign. But the day after she won the local news stations asked her point blank how it felt to be the first female district attorney
“I had never experienced sexism in my family. My parents expected the four boys and six girls to go to college. We weren’t treated differently. I just forged ahead,” she says.
“To me getting promoted was merit based. I think I won that race based on merit. I’m very proud to be the first women and I take that role model aspect very seriously for young girls, but also for young boys to show that no matter what obstacles are put in your way you can overcome them though the strength of your character and hard work.”
The issue that has brought her to national prominence is her hard line stance on drunk drivers. Rice is clearly passionate about the issue and its often fatal consequences in her community.
“DWI offenses are an enormous problem on Long Island. It’s a problem that resonates with the public. Everyone here knows how bad it is. We’re a car driven society out here, very different from New York,” she says.
“Over 4,000 people a year are arrested here for drunk driving, and out of that number a third have been arrested before. My opinion is the message was not getting through. We had a too lax plea-bargaining system.”
Rice was incensed, and she decided to fix it.
“What I did was overhaul the plea-bargaining system for drunk drivers. We’re holding them accountable now,” Rice says.
“Most people were getting to plead guilty to the equivalent of a traffic infraction. It was like speeding. They paid a fine and went on their merry way. We are now holding people more accountable to that misdemeanor.
“We’ve also embarked on a broad educational program because in my view the way we tackle this problem once and for all is to raise the levels of awareness. It’s an issue across the whole country, not just here.”
The case that brought the nation’s media, including 60 Minutes, to her office door was the horrific death of 7-year-old Irish American Katie Flynn, which Rice flatly calls a murder. Flynn had been travelling inside a limousine that she, her sister, father and mother had also been riding in, when a pickup truck slammed into the car, also killing the limousine driver Stanley Rabinowitz. The family had been returning home from the wedding of Flynn’s aunt in Bayville.
Martin Heidgen, driving a 1999 Chevrolet pickup truck the wrong way in the southbound lanes of the Meadowbrook Parkway, crashed into the limousine at 2 a.m. Heidgen survived the crash with a fractured ankle. The police charged him with two counts of second-degree manslaughter and driving while intoxicated.
"There was no question that it was a murder case, based on the facts. But a DWI is a misdemeanor, by law. We can debate whether it should be a felony right off the bat, but right now it’s a misdemeanor,” Rice says.
Rice’s action on DWI cases has caught the attention of other district attorneys who have explored her get-tough stance on drinking and driving.
“I’m proud to say we have put Nassau County on the map in terms of how we are addressing this epidemic. It just shows this is not a local issue,” she says.
“Over 15,000 people every year die of alcohol related crashes. If there was any other causes of that many deaths every year we would all be up in arms. What I’m trying to do is raise awareness to get people to say enough is enough.”
Rice intends to run again in November for another four-year term.
“We’ve done an enormous amount already. On drunk driving, on plea-bargaining, on Internet crime, we have accomplished a great deal. We do sting operations on sexual predators, and we have a 100% percent conviction rate,” she says.
“We do not plea-bargain those cases. Really, it’s setting the tone on cases that affect the quality of people’s lives. We take a hard line on them.”