Serving under three attorneys general, he was the calm center in some of state's most intense legal dramas, from the Station nightclub fire, to the Narragansett Tribe smoke shop raid, to this fall's fatal shooting of a student outside the Providence Career and Technical Academy.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For 20 years, Deputy Attorney General Gerald J. Coyne was a quiet presence at crime scenes and in courtrooms as some of Rhode Island's most intense legal dramas unfolded.
At the Station nightclub fire. In Burrillville, for the unearthing of a Worcester father's body from beneath a concrete slab. In September, at the shooting death of a 15-year-old student outside the Providence Career and Technical Academy. Calm and steady, Coyne was there.
"I always felt that you should lead from the front, not from the back," Coyne said last week in an interview laced with humor.
Coyne's long tenure — across the administrations of three very different attorneys general — will come to a close at month's end as former U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha prepares to take charge. Neronha, who assumes office at the start of the new year, has selected Adi Goldstein as his second in command. Since 2017, Goldstein has worked as senior legal counsel to Gov. Gina Raimondo.
Over the weeks since his "brief" talk with Neronha, Coyne notified the staff in an email that he would be leaving and thanked them for their tireless service, dedication and sacrifice, and set about getting his files in order to hand off to the incoming administration. "I'm going to leave them with guidance," said Coyne, who will turn 60 on Monday.
On a recent afternoon, the temporary office Coyne keeps in the Packet Building as the main office undergoes renovations was crowded with boxes of documents. Stacks of papers covered his desk, along with Red Sox sticky notes. An American flag stood behind his chair.
Coyne, who does not yet know his next professional step, traced his career at the attorney general's office, which started in 1982 when he served as an intern while in his second year at Suffolk University Law School.
"For some of the interns, they will say, 'My God, this is what I want to do,'" Coyne said, adding, "You don't stay here unless you thrive on it."
After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Coyne returned on a permanent basis as a special assistant attorney general under Attorney General James O'Neil. He prosecuted organized crime figures and the captain of the World Prodigy for his role in an oil spill that dumped 300,000 gallons of heating oil into the mouth of Narragansett Bay after the tanker ran aground on Brenton Reef.
Coyne left the office during Attorney General Jeffrey Pine's administration and went into private practice with Kevin Bristow. He built up a "boutique" practice specializing in people in witness protection, some of whom he still keeps in touch with.
Five years later, incoming Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse tapped Coyne to be his deputy. Coyne had served as Whitehouse's campaign adviser and worked as part-time legal counsel to House Speaker John B. Harwood. In his new capacity, Coyne was supervising his one-time peers.
"Your management and leadership skills get put to the test right away," Coyne recalled.
The deputy serves as the person behind the curtain, of sorts — essentially a chief operating officer who keeps the office in motion so the attorney general can focus on his or her goals. Coyne managed personnel, budgets and cases.
"It's been a great experience working here. It's a very unique job. Probably one of the best jobs in the legal community," said Coyne, who earns $192,155 with longevity.
Now U.S. Sen. Whitehouse shared his thoughts on Coyne in an email: “The AG’s office is like a bomb disposal factory, constantly facing multiple difficult and touchy problems. Jerry brought a steady, calm, good-humored and worldly voice to an office where rashness or undue enthusiasms can have dire consequences. I am proud that after he came in with me as deputy attorney general, so many of my successors kept him on and profited from his seasoned wisdom, and that so many men and women who served under his tutelage have risen to positions of significant responsibility in law enforcement and the courts.”
Attorneys General Patrick Lynch and Peter F. Kilmartin both asked Coyne to stay on, earning him another 16 years in the post and many more war stories to add to his vast collection. Asked whose leadership he preferred, Coyne said, "It's the best part of each one of them."
It's a job that isn't marked with highlights, because much of the work centers on people's "worst possible moment," after they've lost a loved one, he said.
He repeatedly recalled the devastation of 2003's Station nightclub fire as unimaginably "terrible." He hoped that both the state and the Narragansett Indian Tribe had learned from the smoke shop raid that same year and would proceed differently if faced with such a conflict again.
The state, under Whitehouse, launched the lead-paint lawsuit. More recently, under Kilmartin, it took on prescription opioid manufacturers and distributors, alleging deceptive practices, and the largest fossil-fuel companies, accusing them of knowingly contributing to climate change.
Coyne spoke of policies implemented over the past decades that included a new process to investigate officer-involved shootings in the wake of the the shooting death of Providence Providence police officer Cornel Young Jr. Young was off-duty when he was mistakenly shot and killed by two fellow officers in January 2000 after he drew his gun during a fracas. The new protocol includes joint investigation by the state police, the attorney general's office and the local police department.
"It will never again be left for an agency to investigate its own officer," Coyne said.
Other law enforcement initiatives Coyne worked on include eyewitness identification reforms and measures requiring police departments to videotape the questioning of suspects in order to gain accreditation. Both initiatives were the work of task forces composed of prosecutors, defense lawyers, law-enforcement officials and civil-rights advocates.
"He was great to work with. He really took a leadership position on it," said Michael A. DiLauro, an assistant public defender who sat on the task forces.
DiLauro recalled Coyne delivering a bound draft of the eyewitness identification policy for him to give to state Public Defender John Hardiman, who was on his deathbed with pulmonary fibrosis.
"He drove it over. He said, 'He should see the result of the work he started.' You don't forget things like that," DiLauro said. "I'll always be grateful."
Coyne's tone becomes almost fatherly when he speaks of prosecutors, whose work he believes is "underappreciated." Many have not known the office without him.
"In this office, you're really part of something bigger than yourself," he said.
He tells them to keep their friends and interests outside of the office to help them deal with the darkness and trauma their jobs encompass each day. He worries that some are unable to shake it off. He and his wife, Cynthia, a former state trooper and now Democratic state senator representing Barrington, found ample distraction from their four "very active" children: Katie, Patrick, Ian and Meghan.
Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Kilmartin's office throughout his administration, described Coyne as incredibly loyal. She noted, as evidence of Coyne's character, his remaining in an entry-level special assistant attorney general role while serving as a deputy. In doing so, he allowed another staff attorney to be elevated to an assistant attorney general post.
Coyne urges prosecutors not to approach a case with blinders on, referencing the wrongful conviction of Jeffrey Scott Hornoff, a former Warwick police detective who spent more than six years in prison for a murder he did not commit, he says.
"Not everybody who is arrested is guilty. Always keep an open mind and be willing to change course in any case," Coyne instructs, and "Never lose sight of the human element of what we do."
Coyne, who also guided attorney generals nationally for the National Association of Attorneys General, laments pension changes that give prosecutors little incentive to stay in positions that keep them working around the clock with no job protection when a new administration comes in.
"You'll always have the people who want to come, but dwindling numbers who want to stay," he said.
On Twitter: @kmulvane