Back in 1984, Jeanine Ferris Pirro, then an assistant district attorney in Westchester, tried a child sexual-abuse case.
It was one of many that her new bureau of the D.A.’s office would try involving the abuse of minors; in this case, her two clients were a 9-year-old boy and an 81¼2-year-old girl whom, Ms. Pirro’s office alleged, suffered rape and sodomy at the hands of a boyfriend of their baby-sitter.
The two children took the stand, each demonstrating the type and extent of the alleged assault using Raggedy Ann and Andy–style dolls that had been modified to show facsimiles of their genitals.
“They didn’t know penis from vagina from anus or anything else,” Ms. Pirro told The Observer in a telephone interview, remembering the case. “Most kids are a little more advanced, given a lot of things that have happened, on the political landscape, in fact”—and here she allowed herself a guffaw—“over the past few years.”
The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts.
And the case—in no small part, thanks to the demonstration in that courtroom—got attention.
Ms. Pirro’s career has been defined by this sort of work. That is, by work with victims of spousal abuse and sexual abuse, murder, stalking, rape, torture. But also by the outsized persona she brings to that work.
Half crusading cop, half crusading mom, Ms. Pirro reflects a reality of the law profession for certain kinds of women who came into the law when she did, at the height of the feminist movement, when its gains were still unsure.
In Westchester County, where she got her start and whence she is launching her bid to oust Senator Hillary Clinton from her seat in the U.S. Senate, women weren’t even allowed to prosecute murder cases when Ms. Pirro began practicing. Cases like those mentioned above were the ones that D.A.’s were willing to entrust to women attorneys. They were, after all, Family Court–type cases, even if they could now be prosecuted in criminal courts.
But she also reflects a very contemporary political reality, and an entertainment reality, that is taking hold right now and making Jeanine Pirro, and others like her, very important.
They share Ms. Pirro’s “broad stripes” of blue-state politics, her abhorrence for rule-breakers and bullies that can sometimes seem like a form of religious devotion and modern careerism at the same time. The paradoxically aggressive, feel-your-pain rhetoric of former-prosecutor-cum-TV-personality Nancy Grace; the ball-busting feminism of sex-crimes-chief-cum-thriller-writer Linda Fairstein; the refined and coiffed yet slammer-friendly M.O. of Manhattan D.A. hopeful Leslie Crocker Snyder.
Each appeals to an increasingly cherished political and entertainment demographic: women. Each takes an iconoclastic political position on crime and punishment. (“That’s why we’ve got jails!” you can almost hear Ms. Grace saying into the camera, vituperative, incredulous, exasperated.) And each has taken her position as a defender of women and children from predators—especially, though not exclusively, male predators—and parlayed it into something almost (almost!) glamorous.
She’s representing those women and that political reality as she faces down Ms. Clinton. And that certain tabloid glamour is both what makes her candidacy sizzle and what makes it problematic. The catfight metaphors are everywhere. The prospects of a well-matched (if not equally matched) girlfight are hard to resist. Hillary’s stand-by-your-man versus Jeanine’s knowing guffaw; Whitewater versus Al Pirro; the ascription of sexual coldness to Mrs. Clinton against the purported sexiness of Ms. Pirro. (On Aug. 16, the New York Post’s Page Six eagerly reported on her underwear-buying habits at the local Victoria’s Secret. Verdict: She likes the expensive stuff; she’s bossy with the staff.) And both of them are political women battle-tested in the courtroom.
In 1977, Ms. Pirro made a proposition to her boss, Westchester District Attorney Carl Vergari. By all accounts a reserved, silver-haired politician, running an almost sleepy if successful operation, Mr. Vergari and his men—mostly graduates of local law schools—were not ones to peer behind the net curtains and painted shutters of the bedroom communities in which they lived.
It’s possible that Ms. Pirro wasn’t, either. Then 26, she had been writing appeals briefs and trying small-fry offenders for three years—ever since she graduated from Albany Law School (where she met her future husband, Al).
She had decided on this career path when she was very young.
“I didn’t dream of my wedding day,” Ms. Pirro writes in her book, To Punish and Protect, of her youthful aspirations. “I dreamed of standing in the well of a courtroom.”
But life in the New Rochelle office didn’t offer many opportunities for high-stakes exposure. Ms. Pirro was one of only a handful of women prosecutors in the office, despite the fact that, like other D.A. offices in the state, Mr. Vergari’s office had recently been fattened by the adoption of the state’s harsh Rockefeller drug laws.
“Often,” she writes of her first three years at the D.A.’s office, “victims and witnesses came to the office and, upon seeing me, demanded to speak with a ‘real’ prosecutor.”
But in 1977, something happened that would change many women lawyers’ careers: Prosecutors were allowed to try domestic-abuse cases that previously were the exclusive province of the family courts.
According to one account, Ms. Pirro had heard that the federal government was making money available to district attorneys’ offices to set up bureaus specializing in prosecuting domestic crimes.
She asked Mr. Vergari to apply for the funding.
At any rate, Mr. Vergari’s office—whose jurisdiction included some of the richest, leafiest suburbs in the state, if not the country (Larchmont, Scarsdale, Bronxville)— was one of only four in the country awarded a federal grant to set up a bureau to tackle domestic cases.
And Ms. Pirro was heading up this new Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Bureau by 1978.
Running the new office gave the ambitious young lawyer her first crack at fulfilling that ambition. And that first break has cast the mold for her 30-year career as a prosecutor.
“I was very much looking forward to the task,” Ms. Pirro told The Observer, “because I had just gotten out of law school … and I believed that equal rights and equal justice applied to everyone. And you didn’t have to be a prosecutor for very long to realize that women and children were exempt from that premise. For me, it was an opportunity to really change the dialogue and to be able to deal with true crime victims so alienated that they weren’t even considered crime victims at the time.”
For one thing, it was a terrain uncharted by the law, and therefore full of possibilities for young lawyers keen to make news and change laws.
Ms. Pirro could take on wife-beaters in criminal court, where the emphasis was tougher and the proceedings more public than in Family Court, where the judges’ mandate was to keep the family intact.
And the work was, in a way, something that a woman could make real headway in. Juries listened to their pleas on behalf of sympathetic victims; in the aftermath of the sexual revolution and the first wave of feminism, the aggressive approach to wife-beaters and deadbeat dads was well tuned to the public feeling.
But the work rattled Mr. Vergari’s office.
“It was an office of men,” Ms. Pirro declared.
“[Police officers] nicknamed our unit the ‘Tit Patrol’ and the ‘Panty Brigade,’” she writes—with some relish—in her book.
“I can remember going to the then district attorney as a young prosecutor,” she told The Observer, “and saying, ‘Look, I need a crib for the battered women so that when they come in, they can put their babies in a crib,’ so that I could interview them to talk about the abuse. And he looked at me like I had three horns.
“It was a mentality that was not a part of the everyday thinking in a prosecutor’s office. This was 1978. But as a woman, I knew that there were certain things that I needed to be able to get the job done, given the kind of victims I was dealing with.”
“In court, she was dogged, persistent; she was a fine trial attorney. She was strong and clear and forceful—just the way you see her now,” recalled Barbara Egenhauser, a 26-year veteran of the office who now runs Ms. Pirro’s special-prosecutions unit.
“My lasting impression of her as a trial attorney was just how prepared she was, how she lived and breathed each case she took on,” said Richard Weill, who joined the office a few years after Ms. Pirro and is now her deputy. “It was not a job for her.”
“I never saw her go 32 seconds without something to say,” chuckled another former A.D.A.
Yet fellow prosecutorial foot soldiers from the time were unable to recall by name many cases that Ms. Pirro tried herself. A 1986 article from the local paper at the time, The Reporter-Dispatch, written when she briefly considered becoming a candidate for lieutenant governor, said that she’d never lost a case in about 50 trials. Another former assistant district attorney disputed that figure and said it wasn’t more than 10, in part because those cases were underreported at the time—a trend that Ms. Pirro was trying to reverse.
Ms. Pirro’s spokeswoman, Anne Marie Corbalis, would only say that as an A.D.A, she had “a 100 percent felony-trial conviction rate.” “She seemed to be on trial all the time,” added Mr. Weill.
Ms. Pirro personally tried the case against Michael Linton, a 32-year-old former Green Beret convicted of shooting his estranged wife, Renee, and then trying to burn her body in an oven. His lawyer argued that Mr. Linton was unfairly targeted and that there was another suspect in the case.
“Keep in mind that it was Renee who was the hunted. And you know who she was running from,” she told the jury, according to a Reporter-Dispatch article from 1988.
The stories out of her division were gory and heartbreaking: There was the woman who tried to abort her own child while eight and a half months pregnant; a man accused of raping four toddlers; another man accused of raping his daughter after killing his wife with cocaine-laced milk.
In fact, Ms. Pirro had a knack for tapping into emotional wellsprings: She issued reports on elder abuse and parental kidnappings.
The unit had a progressive and aggressive “no-drop” policy: They refused to drop spousal-abuse cases at the victim’s request, because the notion was that the victim might be coerced. In 1990, her office prosecuted Robert Snyder for bludgeoning his girlfriend, Deana Shaw, with a hammer. On the witness stand, Ms. Shaw changed her testimony and said that her injuries had been the result of a fall, but the jury found Mr. Snyder guilty anyway. The position has fallen out of favor with some battered-women’s advocates because of its own perceived coercive potential.
But her passion for the job was well recognized among women’s advocates. One battered-women’s advocate with whom Ms. Pirro worked closely at the time recalled her as “a really strong ally.”
“It was really great to work with her. She cared—she passionately cared,” said Charlotte Watson, who was the executive director of My Sister’s Place, a safe house and social and legal services provider. Ms. Watson added that she appreciated Ms. Pirro’s evocative retellings and descriptions of the gruesome nature of the violence—which Ms. Pirro’s critics have charged can sometimes veer toward a kind of exploitation in its own right.
“In her public speaking, she’s willing to tell the truth of victims’ experience and not sugar coat it,” Ms. Watson said.
Mr. Vergari supported Ms. Pirro publicly when she ran for his position a few years later. But lawyers who know him, and who remember the D.A.’s office during that time, recalled tension between Ms. Pirro’s unit and the rest of the office.
One of her former colleagues said that she rubbed the other lawyers the wrong way when she issued press releases with her name rather than Mr. Vergari’s at the top, violating an “unwritten rule” that accords the top dog credit for the office’s coups. Ms. Corbalis called the claim “false.”
“She did get talked to a couple of times by the chief assistant,” the former colleague said.
“She handled some very high-profile, some very difficult cases. These are open courtrooms; you get attention. People covered her cases, and she got attention as a result—and she deserved it,” said Mr. Weill.
One A.D.A. recalled her as “sort of a loner,” partially because the domestic-violence bureau was situated across the street from the courthouse, where the rest of the prosecutors were housed.
“Everybody would go over to a restaurant for lunch and have a hamburger, and she’d go to a Lion’s Club meeting,” he said.
There was other headline-grabbing behavior. Ms. Pirro arranged an arraignment at the hospital bedside of a Port Chester woman with a history of psychological problems who had tried to take her own life after slashing the throats of her four children, ages 3 to 11, according to a 1999 New York magazine profile. She named her daughter for a 4-year-old girl who was battered to death by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend in 1979.
But lawyers who know Mr. Vergari say that Ms. Pirro’s relationship with her boss finally went south when she took credit for her work under Mr. Vergari, claiming sole responsibility for establishing the Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Bureau. (Mr. Vergari didn’t return three calls to his home seeking an interview about Ms. Pirro.)
She left the office in 1990 to serve as a judge, first in Family Court and then in Westchester’s highest criminal division, which is called County Court.
“I remember the judge’s lavatory was for men only,” Ms. Pirro said with a throaty laugh. “I think I ended up going to the public bathroom for a while, and then they decided to make a bathroom for the women judges.”
Ms. Pirro was frustrated, according to her book. As a Family Court judge, she threatened weekend jail terms for men who didn’t pay their child support.
“I was restless. It went against my nature. At heart I was a crusader. I wanted to fight, not preside,” she writes.
Mr. Vergari retired unexpectedly, and Ms. Pirro ran for the job she had always wanted. It was a dirty campaign run by high-profile political gurus: Arthur Finkelstein for Ms. Pirro and Dick Morris for her Democratic opponent, Michael Cherkasky, according to a 1997 article in The New Yorker.
She won, and the night before she took office, Bronxville resident Scott Douglas took a claw hammer to the head of his wife, newspaper heiress Anne Scripps Douglas. Ms. Pirro was cocked: She appeared on Nightline, Larry King Live, Geraldo.
“It was powerful and it was ironic that the kind of crime that I was the most passionate about fighting was the very kind of crime that caused the death in the first homicide [on my watch] in Westchester County. Literally as I was making the transition into becoming the D.A. at midnight [on Dec. 31], she was being hammered to death in her own home. And so, for me, I approached it with even more vigilance than all of the other cases that I had handled. I was disturbed that the first case on my desk would be a domestic-violence homicide—the very thing that I had been fighting for 15 years, yeah, 16 years.”
According to the 1999 New York magazine profile, soon after her election, she took over a new floor of the courthouse, paneled her office with mahogany, installed a kitchenette and built a $20,000 pressroom.
The cases that her office has pursued for the past 12 years are as far-reaching, grisly and sensational as can be found in any D.A.’s docket: embezzlement, grand larceny, animal cruelty, murder—with a little rarefied flavor, like the misdemeanor sexual-abuse charge against Georgina Bloomberg’s horse trainer. (He was acquitted.)
Statistics provided by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services show that in 2004 her office converted about 80% of felony arrests into convictions—a statistic that experts consider to be highly malleable. In Manhattan, the 2004 rate was 63.9 percent. She has only sought the death penalty in one of 12 cases in which it applied, and in that case the jury sentenced the defendant to life.
While her purview is now broad, even a cursory glance at the press releases that issue forth weekly from her office reveals some early themes. “Sex Offender Indicted with Murder in the Second Degree as a Hate Crime,” “Bronx Man Preys on Young Students” and, of course, “Internet Pedophile No. 100 Convicted on All Counts After Trial.”
“She snowballed these kinds of cases into her own special niche, and that niche took off,” observed Bennett Gershman, a sometime critic of Ms. Pirro’s and a professor at Pace Law School.
Indeed, as with domestic violence, the legal instrument that Ms. Pirro employs to zero in on Internet predators is relatively new technology. It was only in 1996 that the Legislature deemed indecent communication over the Internet with a minor a felony.
She started her attention-grabbing High Technology Crimes Bureau, setting up sting operations to catch what she calls “the perverts in the vast terrain of the World Wide Web” in 1999. According to the most recent press release, “107 defendants have been arrested; 101 have been convicted, with the remaining six cases still pending.”
It’s yet another example of Ms. Pirro’s brilliance at turning her program to a public frequency. In Westchester, what wouldn’t people do to protect their kids?
Indeed, her aggressive stance on crime, her identification with women viewers through her appearances on Fox News to discuss deeply personal cases, and her tendency to take her case to the papers, are all legacies of that first job as a “real” prosecutor that have remained with her to this day.
In her book, Ms. Pirro refers to the perpetrators—often men—of the crimes she prosecutes with a slaked-on layer of disgust as “slime,” “sexual deviants,” “perverts” and “demon[s].” She talks about “putting them away,” sometimes to “a special place in hell.”
“What I’m about is settling scores,” she writes. “When I look at our criminal justice system, I don’t see many shades of gray … we simply aren’t angry enough. We don’t demand vengeance.”
In February of this year, when she announced the indictment of a suspect accused of abducting and raping a 12-year-old girl, she told The New York Times that privacy laws forbid her from disclosing whether the suspect, who had spent three years in jail for a prior sexual-abuse charge, was H.I.V.-positive. Asked if she knew it, Ms. Pirro responded:
“Yeah, I do, and that’s what makes me so angry.”
That was one of the cases cited in a complaint filed by the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers with the grievance committee of the Ninth Judicial District, in which they accused Ms. Pirro of a “pattern and practice of making inappropriate extra-judicial comments concerning defendants and suspects in high-profile cases.”
“The District Attorney is proud of her record leading the fight against child molesters, serial rapists and murderers. She will continue to protect the people of Westchester County despite the rantings of these critics, who should be embarrassed by their callous indifference to innocent crime victims,” read a statement released by her office at the time.
Her detractors often accuse her of tailoring her agenda so that it steers clear of the elephant in the room: the kinds of corruption and fraud allegations that have circled around her husband.
“Jeanine is statistics-oriented; she wants to take on cases that are slam-dunk winners,” said Bill Aronwald, a White Plains defense attorney who often faces Ms. Pirro’s troops in court, leveling a charge of cherry-picking that has plagued many prosecutors.
In response, Ms. Pirro’s office sent over 17 pages listing the recent accomplishments of her public-service corruption, organized crime and white-collar crime units. There was the conviction of five officials— including a New York State corrections officer—in the attempted escape from Sing Sing; the racketeering indictment—a joint investigation with the U.S. Attorney’s office, the New York State Police and the F.B.I.—of one the alleged leaders of an Albanian organized-crime group; and, back in 2001, two six-figure white-collar criminal convictions.
“Sex offenders and child abuse and crimes against women and children—that’s what everyone who thinks of Jeanine first thinks of, but I don’t think it’s a fair statement to say that those [other] kinds of cases are not being vigorously prosecuted,” said Mr. Weill, her No. 2.
In 2000, Ms. Pirro announced that she was reopening the investigation into the disappearance of Kathie Durst, the wife of real-estate scion Robert Durst. About a year later, Mr. Durst was named as a suspect in the murder and dismemberment of a 71-year-old man in Galveston, Tex.
Ms. Pirro attended his bail hearing in Galveston in October 2001. He didn’t appear. She then appeared on Nov. 30, when he was arrested for shoplifting in Bethlehem, Penn., and then she returned in January to watch his extradition hearing. A judge issued a gag order meant to apply to Ms. Pirro, which she contested on the ground of jurisdiction.
In his testimony at the trial, Mr. Durst said that he had left New York to escape Ms. Pirro and her unfair charges.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” he said. “I wanted to run away. I knew I had to get away from this Jeanine Pirro woman.”