Anti-Morgy Orgy As Leslie Snyder Assaults The D.A.

Leslie Crocker Snyder was never much one for taboos. She was prosecuting rapists when the law was still a man’s game. She was blasting defendants from the bench while many judges struggled to appear above the fray.

Now she’s violated another one, suggesting that the venerable Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, has been in the job too long.

“It’s not life tenure,” Ms. Snyder, who retired from the bench last fall, told The Observer . “I think I can bring new vigor and new energy, and I think it’s time for a change.”

Mr. Morgenthau is 84 years old (he’ll turn 85 in July), hard of hearing but mentally sharp. He was first elected in 1973 and has said he plans to run again next year. If he wins, he will be 90 at the completion of his term, and his age and the length of his tenure are emerging as a central issue in what could shape up as the most serious challenge yet to one of New York’s most entrenched political figures.

“She is certainly the most formidable and competent candidate that he’s faced,” said Robert Silbering, the former special narcotics prosecutor for New York City, of Ms. Snyder.

Ms. Snyder has already begun laying the groundwork for a challenge next year, hiring a campaign manager, lining up backers like former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, and scheduling her first fund-raiser for Mar. 30. And she’s drawing sharp distinctions between herself and Mr. Morgenthau on charged issues like the death penalty, which she supports, and the Rockefeller drug laws, which she opposes.

Ms. Snyder declined to comment directly on Mr. Morgenthau’s age, but many of her allies are less circumspect. Members of Mr. Morgenthau’s circle were furious, one of his supporters said, over the wording of an invitation to her fund-raiser from Bo Dietl, the private investigator. It lavished praise on Mr. Morgenthau, then added: “There comes a time in people’s careers where they must pass the baton.”

Another backer of Ms. Snyder, former New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer Richard Emery, is even blunter. “One of the few irresponsible things that he’s done as D.A. is not contemplate the future in a realistic and creative way,” he said. He added that he has great respect for Mr. Morgenthau, but worries that Governor George Pataki, a Republican, would appoint a fellow Republican as an interim successor if Mr. Morgenthau died in office. “I assume he’s got a will-I assume he’s contemplated his own death,” Mr. Emery said. “Why can’t he have the same foresight for the people of the County of New York that he has for his family?”

Mr. Morgenthau declined to be interviewed for this article. He has quipped in the past that he’s simply too old to retire. And his supporters say that he hasn’t lost a step.

“He has more pluck and energy than a lot of people I know who are far younger,” said former Mayor Ed Koch.

Ms. Snyder responds that she’s waited long enough. “I don’t know if you understand that I’ve wanted to be Manhattan D.A. for a very long time,” she said, leaning in during an interview in her corner office at the law firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman. Her blond hair, pink nails and husky-voiced energy conceal her age, but, at 62, there’s only so much longer she can bide her time.

“So they want me to wait until I’m 86 until I run?” she asked.

New York political convention has it that Mr. Morgenthau is above politics-in recent years, he was nominated by both the Democratic and Republican parties-and above criticism. He succeeded another legend, Frank Hogan, who died in office after 32 years. Mr. Morgenthau, whose father served Franklin Delano Roosevelt and whose grandfather served Woodrow Wilson, took the office from a top-flight operation prosecuting murders and robberies to a global player with one eye on the street and the other on the international markets. His reputation reached its peak after 1989, when his investigation marked the beginning of the end for the money-laundering Bank of Credit and Commerce International. These days, the office’s mandate stretches from nailing tax-evading art dealers to trying Tyco chief executive Dennis Kozlowski.

Ms. Snyder first ran across Mr. Morgenthau soon after she arrived in New York. It was 1967, and she was a bored young associate at a Manhattan firm. She decided that prosecuting criminal cases would be more exciting, and she went to the U.S. Attorney’s office to get an application. Mr. Morgenthau was then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, appointed to the post by John F. Kennedy.

“They laughed at me,” she said. “It was like, ‘We don’t take women at the criminal division.'”

(Mr. Morgenthau’s spokeswoman, Ms. Thompson, noted that the share of women prosecutors had risen from 10 percent when he became district attorney to about 50 percent, and Ms. Snyder said that she doesn’t blame Mr. Morgenthau personally for the slight.)

So Ms. Snyder went down the street to the office of the Manhattan district attorney, where Hogan was only marginally less skeptical. In her job interview, according to the account in her recent book, 25 to Life , Hogan asked her repeatedly whether she was married. When she asked to try homicide cases, he demanded a letter of permission from her husband, a pediatrician. It was under Hogan’s interim replacement that she founded the nation’s first specialized sex-crimes unit, a position that inspired her to write the state’s first “rape shield” law. She went on to work as a special corruption prosecutor and as a defense lawyer herself before Mr. Koch elevated her to the bench in 1983.

Ms. Snyder’s midtown office is packed with souvenirs of her 20 years as a judge, arrayed on shelves and piled on the radiator. They range from the 1993 Hogan-Morgenthau Award-given to her by the man she wants to succeed-to a less formal honor bestowed by a gang of heroin dealers, who stamped her blond, blow-dried likeness on their little plastic bags over the words “25 to Life.”

Near the heroin bag is a framed trial transcript from a proceeding during her years on the bench:

THE COURT: Do you wish to say

anything before I sentence you?

DEFENDANT: Fuck you.

THE COURT: Denied.

Ms. Snyder’s courtroom played host to some of the most important and complicated criminal trials of the 1980’s and 1990’s, as she presided over the convictions of drug dealers, murderers and corrupt waste-haulers. She has been under police protection since 1988, when a Jamaican drug dealer dispatched a team of hit men to kill her. Her glamour and harsh sentences made her a courthouse legend and won her the nickname “232,” after the number of years to which she is said to have sentenced one felon. (Actually, it was only 213 years.)

It’s a reputation that made her a hero to the tabloids, to cops and prosecutors.

“She was affectionately known as ‘the hanging judge,'” said Mr. Bratton, who is now the top cop in Los Angeles. “She was a very tough law-and-order judge, very smart, somebody the cops liked quite well.”

Defense lawyers, however, complained that she was slanted toward the prosecution and that she intervened from the bench to help struggling young prosecutors with their cross-examinations and to rescue the testimony of weak prosecution witnesses.

“She goes up in front of that jury, she looks like Candace Bergen, she’s charming to the jury, she’s funny-and the jury is putty in her hands,” said Murray Richman, a legendary criminal defender who said he couldn’t remember ever winning an acquittal in front of Justice Snyder. “The Christians had a better chance in front of the lions.”

Ms. District Attorney

Many of Ms. Snyder’s supporters concede that she’s a natural prosecutor. “The main knock on her as a judge was that she would often try cases for the prosecution, take over their case when they didn’t handle themselves well and help them,” Mr. Emery said. “District attorney is the job she was born for.”

Her courtroom antagonists would agree, although they don’t necessarily mean it as a compliment.

“She saw being judge as being the avenging angel of the community,” said Scott Greenfield, a defense lawyer who clashed with Ms. Snyder. “That makes for a good district attorney, but it makes for a lousy judge.”

In a case currently on appeal in federal court, a man convicted in a landmark prosecution of crooked waste-haulers petitioned for relief, claiming that prosecutors had found a way to pick Ms. Snyder for cases where they wanted to be sure of a conviction. A federal district court denied the petition because he found no bias on Ms. Snyder’s part. The federal judge did chide her, however, for some “ill-advised remarks” and “less than tactful” statements-including a reference to a witness as “full of baloney.”

Ms. Snyder’s reversal rate, however, speaks for itself: Over 20 years and hundreds of cases, higher courts overturned her only about a half-dozen times.

Ms. Snyder says she hasn’t committed to a run against Mr. Morgenthau next year, but the main remaining obstacles are practical ones, like the question of whether she’ll be able to raise enough money to mount a serious campaign. In her interview with The Observer , she began laying out the case against the D.A. and describing her own vision for the office.

Ms. Snyder’s criticisms stem largely from her time as a judge, hearing testimony against violent felons and feeling obliged-as defense lawyers ruefully noted-to intervene on behalf of young prosecutors who, she said, “weren’t ready to try cases.”

“Frank Hogan’s idea was [to] take good people from local law schools-people who’ve got guts and fire in the belly,” she said. “I think it’s gone to more ‘Let’s hire only-or primarily-Ivy League people.'”

Ms. Snyder said she would focus those prosecutors on the violent street crime that she considers most destructive.

“The current D.A. has been interested primarily in white-collar crime. I think the primary focus has to be on protecting poor communities, protecting minorities, protecting people from being victims,” she said. “You need energy, you need somebody who’s going to interact with the people of this city-and that’s not happening now.”

Ms. Snyder indicated that she differs from Mr. Morgenthau on some other fronts. She would consider seeking the death penalty in particularly heinous crimes, she said, something the incumbent has not done. And, in what could become an explosive issue, she charges that Mr. Morgenthau backs the punitive Rockefeller drug laws, with their stiff sentences for relatively low-level drug dealers.

“On drug laws, the district attorneys’ association-and therefore [Mr. Morgenthau] as well-have never, ever been in favor of reform,” Ms. Snyder said. “I want to see more treatment; I want to see more drug education.”

Drug-Law Reform

Advocates of drug-law reform said that Mr. Morgenthau had been entirely absent from the debate. The district attorneys’ association has opposed any “radical overhaul” of the Rockefeller drug laws. But Mr. Morgenthau’s spokeswoman, Barbara Thompson, denied that he supports the laws’ most severe penalties.

“The office’s practice is that we don’t enforce the Rockefeller drug laws on the first arrest, and we enforce them differently than the upstate district attorneys,” she said. Ms. Thompson said that 84 percent of people arrested for the first time on the most common drug-dealing charge are allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges.

But it’s one thing to say that Mr. Morgenthau is vulnerable on this point; it’s another to say that Ms. Snyder will be able to make it stick. Can the tough judge persuade Manhattan’s voters-many of them black and Hispanic-that she’s on their side? On the bench, she experimented with sending defendants to rehabilitation programs, of which she’s become a forceful advocate. But she has also sent many young black and Hispanic men to prison for decades. To critics, her new, vocal advocacy of drug-law reform seems calculating, but Ms. Snyder said she’s always been on the side of the victims.

“There are a tremendous number of people in Washington Heights, for example, who are grateful that I’ve helped, in my own way as a judge, to keep their community safer,” she said. “Do I think the family of drug dealers, murderers who are doing 100 years to life, are grateful to me and are going to appreciate me? No, and I don’t really give a damn.”