01 Jun 2003
Ruling from the Bench
Leslie Crocker Snyderby Julia HannaTopics:
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Leslie Crocker Snyder (HRPBA 63) is the essence of grace and civility as
she welcomes the Bulletin to her courtroom on a gray, snowy day in early March. With her shoulder-length
blonde hair, discreet diamond earrings, and low-pitched, modulated voice, its easy to imagine Snyder in a far
more genteel setting than this drab, brown, Depression-era room on the 13th floor of 100 Centre Street on the
citys Lower East Side.
Yet no one who has followed Snyders remarkable legal career has any doubt about her steely resolve when
sentencing some of New Yorks most notorious criminals. Presiding over complex, multidefendant trials at the
height of the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic, Snyder stared down members of the Wild Cowboys drug gang
like Daniel (Fat Danny) Rincon and Stanley (Trigger) Tukes. In the process, she earned a few
street names of her own, including Ice Princess and Judge 232, a number referring to her
sentence for one defendant (the actual term was 213 years). Her hard-line stance has led to numerous death threats
and the necessity for 24-hour police protection.
I dont think about the threats on a daily basis, she remarks. You tuck it into the back
of your mind the way you would anything unpleasant otherwise you couldnt deal with it.
Snyder recalls wanting to be a criminal lawyer from an early age; as a young girl growing up in Baltimore, she
took notes on the FBIs Ten Most Wanted list and gathered every Friday night with her family to watch Ralph
Bellamy in Man Against Crime. After graduating from Radcliffe, it seemed logical that she would go on to law school.
First, however, she enrolled in the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, the one-year certificate
program available to women at the time.
The decision was practical and personal: Her goal upon graduation was to land a well-paying job to support her
fiancé through law school; once hed completed his degree, it would be her turn to attend. The engagement
ended, but Snyder does not regret her HBS investment. The case method definitely sharpened my analytical
skills, which was invaluable for law school and beyond, she says. I also greatly enjoyed the courses on
organizational behavior and production some of those lessons were useful later on, when I had to preside over
a complicated case and maintain an orderly, efficient courtroom at the same time.
Women were just beginning to gain momentum in the professional world when Snyder enrolled at Case Western Reserve
University law school. There, her androgynous first name and stellar academic record led to an interview for a
summer job at a Cleveland law firm, an option that was hastily withdrawn once her gender became apparent.
Im sorry, we dont hire women, the interviewing partner politely told her. After graduating
at the top of her class in 1966, she received offers from firms in New York and Washington, and spent eighteen
months working at Kaye Scholer in Manhattan before applying for a position in the Manhattan District Attorneys
Snyder recalls those early days and subsequent highlights from her thirty-plus years in the legal
profession in her recent book 25 to Life: The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth. Her
apprenticeship in the DAs various bureaus, she recalls, was an education in itself and a means of attaining
her immediate goal: a transfer to the homicide bureau. Her ambition was met with skepticism in that all-male world;
women were thought too sensitive to handle the gory details of murder. In 1973, on her third attempt to gain entry
to this elite fraternity, Snyder succeeded with the stipulation that she obtain a permission letter from her
husband, Fred Snyder, a pediatrician. (After she ignored the request, the requirement was quietly dropped.)
Snyder went on to other firsts: She founded the nations first sex-crimes unit and helped change New
Yorks rape statutes. Until early 1974, corroboration (additional evidence from something or someone other than
the victim) was required in three areas to prove rape: the identity of the rapist, that force was used, and that the
victim had been penetrated. As a result, few cases were prosecuted successfully. After the state legislature dropped
these requirements, Snyder and another female attorney went on to write and lobby successfully for New Yorks
rape shield statute. The law prevents most questioning about the victims prior sexual history
(unless it involved the defendant), a practice that often served only to humiliate the victim and introduce material
irrelevent to the proceedings at hand. In 1983, then New York Mayor Ed Koch appointed Snyder to a judgeship.
With her well-publicized record of tough sentencing, critics suggest that defendants in Snyders courtroom
are guilty until proven innocent. She counters by noting that, after twenty years on the bench, few of her decisions
have been reversed.
Proud of that record, Snyder is looking for new challenges. In addition to having her eye on the office of
Manhattan DA, the position currently held by Robert Morgenthau, Snyder, who often pins a small American flag on her
robes, is drawn to the ongoing war against terrorism. I would love to find some way to help, but havent
figured out how I would fit in yet, she says. There are fascinating issues being raised around the
balance between individual rights and societys rights. How many more secret proceedings should we allow the
government? What are we willing to do to make sure we dont have any more 9/11s, and how many rights do we have
to give up?
Ive always loved the idea of truth, justice, and the American way, adds Snyder. If I
could continue to serve my country in a new field, I would want to do it.
Class of HRPBA 1963