Mario Merola, the blunt-spoken district attorney who put the "Son of Sam" killer behind bars but failed to convict former U.S. Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan on fraud charges, died Tuesday night after an apparent massive stroke.
Merola was 65 and with 15 years in office was the senior member of New York City's five district attorneys. A Democrat, he had been expected to win reelection easily next week.
"His quality and commitment to his city, state and country will never be replaced," said Gov. Mario Cuomo. "The entire state mourns its loss."
Feisty and self-assured, Merola never shied from controversial cases. But perhaps his boldest stroke, the indictment of President Reagan's then-labor secretary on charges that Donovan and seven others had stolen $7.4 million from a subway construction project, failed with acquittal of the charges.
He also lost a manslaughter case this year against a white police officer who fatally shot a 66-year-old black woman with a history of mental illness during an eviction dispute. Merola's comment on the defeats was characteristic:
"We lost two big ones, no doubt about it," he said. "You want me to be a nebbish and do nothing--not prosecute--when we get tough cases which could go either way?"
Some Major Victories
Merola succeeded in other prominent cases, getting a life term for "Son of Sam" gunman David Berkowitz in 1978; and winning the 1980 conviction of horse trainer Howard (Buddy) Jacobson for killing a rival in a love triangle.
The Bronx-born son of Italian immigrants, Merola was an Air Force combat navigator in World War II, earned a New York University law degree in 1949 and in 1957 became a lawyer in the city Department of Investigation.
He was an assistant district attorney in the Bronx from 1960 to 1964 and a two-term city councilman from 1964 to 1972.
Merola's name will remain on next week's ballot. Should he win, Cuomo will appoint an interim prosecutor to serve until the November, 1988, election.