01 Jun 2003
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Ruling from the Bench

Leslie Crocker Snyder
by Julia Hanna

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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, it’s 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 city’s Lower East Side.

Yet no one who has followed Snyder’s remarkable legal career has any doubt about her steely resolve when sentencing some of New York’s 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 don’t 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 couldn’t 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 FBI’s 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 he’d 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. “I’m sorry, we don’t 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 Attorney’s Office.

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 DA’s 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 nation’s first sex-crimes unit and helped change New York’s 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 York’s “rape shield” statute. The law prevents most questioning about the victim’s 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 Snyder’s 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 haven’t figured out how I would fit in yet,” she says. “There are fascinating issues being raised around the balance between individual rights and society’s rights. How many more secret proceedings should we allow the government? What are we willing to do to make sure we don’t have any more 9/11s, and how many rights do we have to give up?

“I’ve 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.”

Julia Hanna

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Class of HRPBA 1963

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