News & Politics

Manhattan D.A. Debate: A Closer Look

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Since Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s strong advantage has basically rendered the mayoral race uncompetitive, the contest for the powerful Manhattan district attorney’s office might be the most interesting in the city. Last night, the Stonewall Democrats held the first “debate” among the three candidates. (It wasn’t exactly a debate because the candidates had few chances to respond to one another and for the most part answered planted questions — including some they had written themselves.)


The candidates worked hard to sculpt their images. Richard Aborn presented himself as the ‘reformer with bold ideas’ and Leslie Crocker Snyder — the former Supreme Court judge who lost a bid to D.A. Robert Morgenthau four years ago — as the experience candidate. Onetime Morgenthau protege Cyrus Vance, Jr. promoted himself as a competent trial lawyer and manager, and tried not to lean too hard on his reputation as Morgenthau’s guy in a race that many will see as a referendum on the six-term D.A.’s legacy (though Vance was a star Morgenthau prosecutor until the late eighties, when he moved to Seattle to practice law; he returned to New York City in 2004).


Moderator Paul Schindler, editor-in-chief of Gay City News, asked the candidates whether they planned on ‘cleaning house,’ at the D.A.’s office. Crocker Snyder said she knew the “district attorney’s office in and out,” having spent “99 percent of her career” in the New York City criminal justice system. She said that while there were some excellent lawyers there, much change was needed; for example, she said the office could have done much more to advocate, as she has, reform of the Rockefeller drug laws (though, as a judge, Crocker Snyder was known to dole out harsh sentences under Rockefeller, for which dealers dubbed her “The Dragon Lady“).

She specifically chastised the D.A.’s office for an unwillingness to admit mistakes, and cited the troubling 1990 Palladium murder case as a prime example. (Two men were wrongfully convicted and served over a decade of jail time because prosecutors had withheld evidence that would might have established their innocence). But, as Tom Robbins and others pointed out back in 2005, there have been times when Crocker Snyder was slow to admit her own mistakes: In one case, she allowed a man to be jailed for 24 days, even though the man’s defense lawyer had pointed out erroneous fingerprint samples used against him; her certainty of his guilt was based on an old picture of him which she said was identical to that of the murderer. (The District Attorney’s office later admitted a mistake and Crocker Snyder released the man.)


The LGBT community that comprised most of the audience was mainly concerned with one issue: what the district attorney’s office would do about recent arrests of gay men in an East Village porn shop on what are said to be trumped-up prostitution charges. Vance, who wouldn’t say whether the district attorney’s office had done anything wrong, said he wanted to see the creation of community justice task forces that would reach out to specific communities to avoid misunderstandings such as were alleged — something both Crocker Snyder and Aborn also support. Aborn said he’d filed a complaint with the city’s commissioner of human rights to investigate whether there was systemic targeting of gay men. Crocker Snyder said she had written an editorial about the issue, and pointed to her long experience protecting gay rights, including founding New York’s Sex Crimes Protection Unit.


Of the three, Aborn comes across the best talker is running primarily on a single issue: crime prevention over punishment. Crocker Snyder comes across as sharp and serious (some might say too serious: She once said of a convicted murderer that, if she could, she would give him a lethal injection herself). Vance seems committed and competent, but has trouble getting a message across. In the coming months, we’ll see how this all shakes out.

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