Renowned Connecticut judge and former CIA operative dies

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Downey (left) receiving the Nathan Hale Award in 2005 from the former president of Yale, Richard Levin. Courtesy of Yale.edu

A renowned Connecticut judge and former CIA operative who was held captive in China for 20 years has passed away.

The Honorable John T. Downey, 83, served as a judge in Connecticut from 1987 and after his retirement as a state referee until his death. During that tenure he became the chief administrative judge for juvenile matters in 1990, and in 1997 he choice to take senior judge status.

john t downey

Downey walking to freedom in 1973, via CIA.gov.

Downey not only served as a judge in Connecticut, but he also served the United States as a CIA operative after graduating from Yale University in 1951. While on a mission in China in November 1952 Downey’s plane was shot down and he was captured. He was held in Chinese prisons for 20 years as a Cold War prisoner, and eventfully became the longest-held captive in American history. He was released in 1973, and three years later he graduated from Harvard Law School.

In 2002 the New Haven Juvenile Matters Courthouse and Detention Center was named for Downey.

Downey was honored with the CIA’s highest honor of valor when he received the Distinguished Intelligence Cross in 2013. At the time, Chif Court Administrator Joseph Hr. Pellegrino said, “Judge Downey devoted time, energy, and talent to improving Connecticut’s juvenile justice system. So it is only fitting that this building bear his name.”

Downey and the other CIA operative he was detained with, Richard Fecteau, with a captured B-29 crew in a Chinese propaganda photo, via CIA.gov.

Downey and the other CIA operative he was detained with, Richard Fecteau, with a captured B-29 crew in a Chinese propaganda photo, via CIA.gov.

Gov. Dan Malloy has directed all U.S. and Connecticut flags to fly at half-staff in the judge’s memory until services are held for him. The date of those services has not yet been determined.

“He has a clear reputation in Connecticut as a caring and compassionate leader, who to this day continues to be a role model for so many in our state,” the governor said in statement. “He is leaving a lasting legacy in Connecticut.”

For more on the judge’s background and time in Chinese captivity, click here to read the CIA’s account.

 

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