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."
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.
"Judge Snyder ordered the case to a hearing, which was proper," said Bogatin. "But she didn't want to handle it herself. She spent two weeks trying to send it to another judge. She said she only handled big, multi-defendant cases. This case was just too small and unimportant for her. She said she didn't have the time."
When no other judge took the case, Snyder had to hold the hearing herself. "What she said from the bench was, 'I can't believe I have to try this case,' " said Bogatin. "I remember thinking it was pretty callous for a member of the judiciary. After all, this was an assault on an innocent woman who had lost her eye."
Following the hearing, Snyder denied the motion to dismiss, saying the delay wasn't the cops' fault. Smith later pled guilty and was sentenced to 3 to 9 years. But Snyder was later reversed by an appellate panel, which tossed out the indictment and conviction, pointing out that police had managed to arrest Smith nine separate times after they knew he was a suspect in the bottle attack, but had still failed to charge him.
"What I remember is how dismissive she was in both what she said and how she said it," said Bogatin. "It was just too little for her. Not sexy enough."
For Snyder, this is a lot more ancient history than she bargained for. "The information in this article is misleading and inaccurate," said her spokesman, Eric Pugatch. "We're confident voters will care more about Leslie's 35-year record of fighting for social justice and protecting New Yorkers than they will about the false recollections of a few individuals from decades ago."
Snyder wouldn't say what was false in these old stories, or suggest why anyone would want to make them up. But she complained at the debate that she is the victim of an "old boys network"—one that includes Vance, his chief backer, Morgenthau, and the three dailies that have endorsed him.
Actually, before the powerful Times editorial board weighed in with its endorsement of Vance, much of the pre-primary momentum was going to the dark horse in the race, defense lawyer and anti-crime activist Richard Aborn, who has impressed many meeting him for the first time with his energy and ideas. As of late last week, of the 24 elected officials choosing sides in the race, Aborn has 17 endorsements, including West Side congressman Jerry Nadler and a dozen state legislators. Vance has half a dozen, led by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. Snyder's sole endorsement by a sitting elected official came from East Side assemblyman Micah Kellner. She does hold an overwhelming lead in another category, however: law enforcement unions and organizations. She's got 20 of them.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.