History Lessons in the D.A.'s Race: Leslie Crocker Snyder's Back Pages

The bitter three-way race to succeed Robert Morgenthau as Manhattan District Attorney has kicked up all kinds of ancient history. This seems appropriate given that the office last changed hands in 1974—before many of the political aides working so diligently on this campaign were even born.

The history that Leslie Crocker Snyder, the tough ex-judge who is making her second run for the job, has tried to get voters to focus on is the period of the 1980s and '90s. That's when, as she said four times in last week's televised debate, "New York City was under criminal siege," and when Cy Vance Jr.—the opponent she sees as her chief competition—"moved as far away as he could to go into private practice and make a lot of money." The race comes down to a choice between that behavior, she said modestly, and her own: Someone who "stayed, protecting New Yorkers, even putting your life on the line, as I did for 35 years."

It's a perfectly legitimate point. Unfortunately, it loses some of its impact when Snyder repeats it over and over with the eye-popping fury of a subway preacher blasting away at a captive audience on the A train. If you missed the TV version of her fervent spiel, check out her glossy campaign mailer, which includes a black-and-white street photo right out of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and a full-page swipe at Vance for moving "to Seattle to make millions defending murderers, mobsters, and white-collar criminals."

Wrapped in her own flag: Snyder on parade
Henry McGee–Globe Photos, Inc./Newscom
Wrapped in her own flag: Snyder on parade

As much as Leslie Snyder—ex-judge, ex-prosecutor, ex–law enforcement administrator—has a great résumé for the job she so desperately seeks, her talent for raising the heat several notches too high often makes the 67-year-old lawyer her own worst enemy. She's been doing it for years. Among her rightful claims to fame are the notorious criminals she sent away as a Manhattan Supreme Court Judge, including the "Natural Born Killers" and "Wild Cowboys" drug gangs, as well as the mobsters who ran the city's garbage cartel. "Eighty-five percent of my caseload was incredibly violent crimes," she said at the debate. She used to brag that defendants called her the "Princess of Darkness."

But that righteous fervor wasn't always aimed at hardened criminals. Last week, a veteran Manhattan attorney named William Schaap recalled encountering the same take-no-prisoners attitude when Snyder was a young assistant district attorney in the late 1960s. At the time, Schaap was one of a group of attorneys mobilized by the National Lawyers Guild to defend the scores of New Yorkers arrested during the city's anti–Vietnam War demonstrations. The biggest wave of arrests followed the violent police clash with student protesters at Columbia University in the spring of 1968.

"We were each handling hundreds of defendants," said Schaap last week. "Columbia was the complainant, and most were charged with third-degree trespass"—a low-level misdemeanor. After the initial sensation, the cases bogged down as many arresting officers failed to appear at hearings, while others had trouble identifying those they'd arrested.

"Most of the assistant D.A.s viewed the cases as diddly-squat," said Schaap, brother of the late legendary journalist Dick Schaap. "They thought it was a waste of the office's time and resources. Except Leslie. How to say it? She was just vicious. She was anti-antiwar. She saw them all as Commie crazies. Everyone else was making deals to settle these cases. She wouldn't make deals with anyone. She wanted to go to trial on everything. Most A.D.A.'s figured if some college kid had to show up three or four times to sit for hours waiting through night or day court, that was enough. But we had to fight her tooth and nail. She thought these people were monsters."

Schaap remembers that even after D.A. Frank Hogan—hailed by Snyder at last week's debate as her mentor and hero—agreed to go along with Columbia's eventual request to drop still-pending charges against some 400 students, Snyder dissented. "Leslie was the only A.D.A. pissed off about that," said Schaap. "She continued to be very hard-nosed. It was clear that she relished prosecuting antiwar demonstrators."

In her campaign, Snyder has also been eager to espouse victims' rights, laying claim to having helped create the sex crimes prosecution bureau in the D.A.'s office and the state's rape shield law.

In early August, however, another Manhattan attorney called up to talk about a case from the early '90s, when Snyder seemed more interested in the spotlight than the victim. Marc Bogatin said he appeared before Snyder after being assigned as counsel for a defendant with a long rap sheet named Prince Smith a/k/a Paul Andine, who was charged with viciously knocking a woman's eye out with a bottle.

Unfortunately, the cops had taken their sweet time in nabbing Smith, and it wasn't until four years later that he was indicted for the crime. Bogatin did what defense lawyers are supposed to do: He filed a motion seeking dismissal on the grounds that the long delay had violated his client's right to a speedy prosecution.

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