NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of former New York State Supreme Court Justice Leslie Crocker Snyder.
Drug dealers and killers have called her “The Ice Princess” and “The Princess of Darkness,” and threatened her with death. But long before Leslie Crocker Snyder laid down the law from the bench of New York State Supreme Court, she was a young attorney attending a business meeting with a certain rock group.
Who knows what hand fate might have dealt her had she answered one question differently?
“Mick Jagger was not there, let me make that clear, but several of the [Rolling] Stones were there, so we started chatting,” she says. “At the end of the meeting, in which I had very little legal input, he said, ÎYou're kind of cute, come spend the weekend with me. We'll have fun. I'll take you over to London.’ I was scared. I should have done it, in retrospect.”
No doubt some of the criminals she would later sentence wish she had gone off with the Stones. Crocker Snyder stepped down from the bench last fall. By then she'd spent 20 years sending scores of murderers and drug dealers to prison.
During that time, she became known for the sentence that she often handed down, the sentence that is the title of her book, “25 To Life.”
“I saw so many families devastated, so many victims,” she says. “These young kids sucked into a life of drugs, working mothers going to work thinking their kids are in school, working their butts off to try to keep these kids in school and put food on the table. Meanwhile, kids are hanging out with drug dealers who are having them sell drugs."
In the 1980's and 90's, drug gangs like the Jheri Curls and the Wild Cowboys felt the wrath of the judge. They may have hated her, but they clearly took note of her. Witness the heroin bags that carried the inscription, “25 To Life” and featuring the judge’s likeness.
"I was dealing with truly the underbelly of humanity, is what I call it, and you have to keep your sense of humor,” she says. “I think I'm a very warm, sweet person. Obviously they didn't see that side of me, nor should they have. When you're dealing with someone who has ordered 40 murders, you are not going to show your warm, sweet side.”
Crocker Snyder says she loved being in the middle of things, loved the action, but there was a cost. There are no pictures of her husband or children in the office, for good reason - security.
She’s received numerous death threats from drug gangs, mobsters, Wall Street executives, threats that required security for the judge and her family, and caused plenty of 3 a.m. wakeups.
“Waking up in a totally cold sweat in real terror of something happening to your children, who are the most important people in your lives, and wondering if you're doing the right thing," she says. “To have your kids say to you, ÎMom, you’ve got to do what you're doing because it's the right thing, and you can't let the bad guys win.’ I'm terrified for them, but they're not the least bit afraid.”
Crocker Snyder says she'll always have some form of security, and she isn't allowed to ride the subway.
Can she ever escape the feeling of "who might be out there?"
“I would say that in the street you tend to let that kind of concept go to the back of your mind, but if you see someone looking at you crosseyed, the thought is there,” she says.
The judge did have her detractors while on the bench, those who felt that she was, in effect, a second prosecutor in the courtroom.
"There's no question I ran a tight courtroom, and lawyers don't like that,” she says. “They don't like to be told, ÎI’m stopping you now. I see where you're going with this line of questioning.Î Certainly from their perspective I could have softened up, I guess, but this was my philosophy on bench - run a tight courtroom and everyone gets a fair trial."
But it wasn't all “lock 'em up and throw away the key.” Crocker Snyder sentenced many people to Abraham House in the Bronx, which serves as a family center and after school program for children. It’s also an alternative to incarceration for adult first time non-violent offenders. She now serves on the board.
“You can't take someone, put them in jail, and get them out on parole with really no support system to speak of,” she says. “You dump them back in the same community, with the same dysfunctional family and the same problems. You really need a holistic approach to all of the issues involved. We just can't keep sending everyone to jail. We have to divert the younger people who have some hope of rehabilitation. I firmly believe that. I also believe there are a lot of people who can’t ever be rehabilitated, the truly violent, and I have no interest in rehabilitating them."
You might think that Leslie Crocker Snyder would get as far away as possible from the legal world in her leisure time. Think again.
“[I like to read] anything from biographies to, I'm sorry to say, thrillers,” she says. “I am hooked on cops and robbers. I am a buff."
Crocker Snyder had a bit of the performing bug as a youngster growing up in Baltimore, until a ruling came down from her own judge and jury, her parents.
“I was in the Dramatic Club in high school, and my parents obviously didn't think much of that,” she says. “They told me I had no talent and discouraged me."
Before she established her tough persona on the bench, Crocker Snyder used her performing skills as both a prosecutor and defense attorney.
“Criminal trials, because of the adversarial system, are really theater, to a great extent, and so the more that you like to perform, the better off you're going to be in terms of winning over jurors and just having a stage presence in courtroom,” she says. “I think all the better trial lawyers have that.”
Crocker Snyder displayed that presence during a recent cameo on "Law and Order."
Crocker Snyder first got a sense of the obstacles women faced in the law in the 1960’s, when she applied for a summer job while in law school in Cleveland.
“I walk into the room and the interviewer is looking down at my file and he says, ÎHave a seat Mr. Crocker,’ which was my maiden name,” she says. “And I walk over and he looks up, and he looks just absolutely stunned, and he closes the file and he says, ÎI’m afraid there’s been a mistake - we don't hire women.’”
There would be more challenges. Then-Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan hired Crocker Snyder in the early 70’s, but rebuffed her efforts to work in the homicide bureau.
“He said to me, ÎBring me a letter of permission from your husband, and maybe I'll let you go to homicide,” she says. “Because you have to go out in the middle of the night and go to precincts and take confessions, and he didn't think a woman should be doing that. My husband is the most supportive person in my life, and has great sense of humor. He wanted to write the letter of permission as a joke, so he could say he wrote it. He thought it was absurd.”
Crocker Snyder eventually founded the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office, and co-authored New York's rape shield law, which prevents most questioning about the alleged victim’s prior sexual history.
Some 30 years laterr, Crocker Snyder believes that concept is under attack by the judge and female defense attorney in the Kobe Bryant case.
”She's done everything so that it gets out there in the media and everyone starts off with the opinion that this woman is a slut or a tramp, or she has such extensive sexual history that she shouldn't be believed, basically,” she says. “That was why we wrote the rape shield law."
The judge says she left the bench because it had gotten a little less interesting and a little more repetitive. Her current job has given her a chance to regroup, and she is clearly sounding like a candidate.
“I will return to public service,” she says. “I'm exploring the possibility of running for District Attorney, yes. I think that a whole new fresh outlook, an interactive vigor and energy and a change, a time for a change, has come."
That’s a clear reference to the current Manhattan D.A., the man who has held the job since 1975 and has indicated he'll run again, 84-year-old Robert Morgenthau, who NY1 has also profiled on "One on 1."
So Crocker Snyder's focus is on where she's going, with an appreciation for where she’s been.
“I can't really complain about anything that has ever happened to me. I have loved my career. I really have loved it,” she says. “I feel I've done something important in my life. I have a great family, which is the most important thing, but the second most important thing is, ÎHave you done something worthwhile with your life?’ And I have."
- Budd Mishkin