Lethal Weapon: Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan

Outraged at an epidemic of accidental addiction to prescription painkillers that’s causing devastation among users and bystanders alike, superstar narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan takes aim at a surprising new foe: the American medical establishment

by Nanette Varian • Editor { View Profile }
Bridget Brennan Dan Winters photo
Photograph: Opening and portrait photos by Dan Winters

Brennan was responsible for most of her own tuition and expenses; her résumé from this time includes “car jockey” at a rental outfit, cocktail waitress, magazine-subscription clerk and brewery worker. A journalism major, she also did stints at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—“My first front-page story was about a meth-lab bust,” she notes—and at a TV station in Green Bay before moving into an on-air slot in Eau Claire after graduation. Reporting gave her a buzz. “I enjoyed the ability to be in the moment,” she says, “to be a part of an exciting story, to try to interpret events and share them with the public.” Deciding it would be useful to develop a niche, she returned to the University of Wisconsin for law school.

“My grades were not stellar,” she said in a 2001 address to first-year law students at her alma mater; in the speech she also admitted to having gone through “periods of panic and gripping insecurity.” That insecurity was not in evidence by the time she landed in Frank Tuerkheimer’s Trial Lab class in the spring of her third year. “Bridget gave a closing argument as a prosecutor in a little mock trial that was close to brilliant,” recalls the professor, who recommended her to his former boss, then–Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau. Although Brennan had grown up thinking of New York as a place with “no trees” and prosecutors as the “old guys” in the TV cop shows, a summer job in a legal clinic had piqued her interest in the work of the other side. “I came to realize the tremendous clout that a prosecutor had in terms of discretion”—deciding what charges to bring, she says. “And, frankly, I also realized that most of the people convicted were guilty of the crimes they were charged with. The question was whether the punishment was appropriate.”

Less than a week after the recommendation from her professor, Brennan headed to New York, where the cab ride from the airport confirmed some of her worst suspicions. “There was trash all over the side of the road and a carnage of cars,” she recalls of that 1983 visit. “I’m thinking, Where am I?”

“She was one of the best applicants we had that year,” says Morgenthau. As Brennan gained experience, the intensity of her cases ratcheted up. Robbery. Burglary. Sexual assault. Homicide. She began noticing a pattern: The late ’80s were “a really awful time, and every time you turned around, it was about drugs.” Especially crack cocaine. Those cases haunt her to this day. The addict parolee who robbed the restaurant manager who’d given him a job, severed the man’s neck with a machete and then smoked up all the money he had stolen. (“When I took a statement from him, he was weeping about having killed the man who had been so kind to him,” she recalls.) The crack-addicted mother who “never showed up” to testify against the man accused of sexually abusing her four-year-old girl.

“Everything I was seeing reinforced the devastation caused by this drug,” says Brennan, who took “a little breather” and transferred to the white-collar-crime unit, where the lawyers she supervised included the late President Kennedy’s son. “By that time my father had died,” she says. “But I’ve often thought that he would have loved it . . . [New York] is a remarkable city. The fact that Gale Brennan’s daughter could become John Kennedy Jr.’s boss is sort of an amazing quirk of fate.” Two years into her emotional respite, Brennan was offered the position of deputy chief of the Special Investigations Bureau (SIB) in the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. Here was an opportunity to attack head-on the evil at the root of so much of the despair she had seen. “I loved being on what I viewed as the front end of the problem,” she says, “seizing the drugs before they hit the streets, rather than on the back end, sweeping up the debris.”

When her supervisor downshifted to part time after a maternity leave, Brennan became the head of the SIB. Four years later, in 1998, she was sworn in as special narcotics prosecutor. She was pregnant for both promotions.

Originally published in the June 2012 issue

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zhang rendong06.15.2012

hmm, so beautiful she is.
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Coco Early06.13.2012

Wonderful, in depth article. As a Twin Cities resident, I believe the issues Bridget has taken on are everywhere in this country; not just NYC.
I applaud Bridget as a dedicated professional tackling tough issues.
She is an inspiration to me and my daughters.
Thank you Bridget,
Coco "Corky" Dugan Early

Rhonda Bayless06.05.2012

This article should scare anyone who reads it!

Rhonda Bayless06.05.2012

I tremble in my boots everytime i read about this issue, because the ONLY people that are affected is those in legitimate, chronic pain that are treated like criminals because 'tylenol' doesn't do a damn thing for the type of pain I am describing. Until this lady ends up in this type of pain, and she will one day, of course she will be treated appropriately due to her holier than thou job of 'busting addicts' which will be exactly who she is when that day comes. Until then, she can be free from feeling any discomfort and sleep well at night knowing she's single handedly stopping doctors from treating their patients due to 'accidental' addiction that folks in her family have experienced. Be afraid, be very afraid. All this does is send people who can no longer obtain their legal pain medications down to the corner to the heroin dealer, because people will do ANYTHING to stop the kind of pain I speak of. If you doubt this, then your day has not yet arrived. Just find one person anywhere who suffers from chronic, dibilitating pain and you will know what I speak of. This lady is 100 times more scary than the worst addicts I've ever assisted in getting help. Her brand of help is aresting her way out of this 'problem', throw away the key then suffer or die, just as long as she can justify her job, and the government subsidized prison system that pays her.

"Wake up. Don't you see whats going on." I hear you, loved the article on the narcotics Prosecuter Bridget Brennan taking a hard line on the Medial Establishment for over perscribing pain killers.
I picked up the June 2012 issue of More Magazine a week after I read an article in the NY Daily news dated, Friday May 18th regarding Mary Richardson Kennedy's suicide.
So much for Law Enforcement to do now adays to have to get into the Medical establishment that all doctors take an oath to cause no harm. So what the heck were the doctors thinking that according to the Daily News, "Her doctors who were well meaning were trying mightily to find the correct mix of medications to help her and they failed repeatedly.", according to her sister Kerry Kennedy.
Granted I don't follow the Kennedy family and I'm not familiar with all the details however the more and more I read articles about people and drugs the more dismayed I become.
The article in More magazine was clearly focusing on persciption pain killers, however the American Citizen has become inindated with drugs. We used to be worried about street drugs, illegal drugs, dealers, influencing children, inner city, and wealthly suburbs. Now if your sad, something tragic happened, it looks as though the first advise given is to pop a pill. What the neck is wrong with everybody. Bad things happen, I'm not completely against medication, but really they are going to have to deal with it a some point, or be on cronic pain killers for the rest of their life.
It seams to me that no one is teaching people that pain is part of life, bad things happen. There are lots of complications out there and everyone's life is different. No two pains are the same. I'm not talking about constant therapy, but I do believe that the painkillers have side effects and the one most alarming is the one for depression that we all see on T.V. One, again, One of the side effects is it may cause people to consider suicide. Come on people. It's too bad the pharmaceutical establichment doesn't have to take that same oath to cause no harm.
I must also agree with Brennan's closing comments that "she won't consider myself a crusader on any issue because I'm always a little skeptical." There are gray areas. The answer is not always balck and white. Right and Wrong. My point is there is pain in life, physical and emotional. Physcial you try your best to fix the problem, emotional you go through the grieving process. It's part of living.

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