September 2002

Judge Leslie Shachtman

The judge takes the stand: Lady of justice is not afraid to make the time fit the crime
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She can be tough in court, but in conversation, Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder is light-hearted, quick to laugh and more inclined to explain her views of the law than proclaim them as absolutes. In her nearly 20 years on the bench, the Manhattan Supreme Court justice has clashed with some of New York City's wiliest and most menacing desperadoes. Death threats have become a routine part of her job.

While Snyder's 25 To Life, co-written with Tom Shachtman, is essentially autobiographical, it's also a lucid and example-filled study of how the criminal court system works. Snyder tells of overwhelming case loads, judges more interested in efficiency than justice, good cops and bad cops and an endless procession of defendants rapists, murderers and drug lords who are, in her estimation, pure evil." In her determination to combat such evil, Snyder has earned a fearsome reputation, principally for levying long prison sentences.

The daughter of a distinguished professor of French literature and philosophy, Snyder grew up in Baltimore. She graduated from Radcliffe College (which she entered at 16) and went on to study law at Case Western Reserve at a time when women lawyers were still comparatively rare. After a false start at a white shoe" firm in New York (which she found boring), she joined the Manhattan district attorney's office (which she found infuriatingly sexist). Even so, it was still a bastion from which to bust the bad guys. Snyder worked her way steadily up the prosecutorial ladder, before becoming a criminal court judge in 1983.

The first time she decided to pronounce a 25-to-life sentence, Snyder recalls in her book, she retreated to the privacy of a bathroom to mull over the gravity of what she was about to do. Soon, however, she was past the agonizing. It never got easy," she says, but it got a lot easier, and I'll tell you why. Most of the cases in which I've given out these high sentences were for people who had been involved in multiple murders or murder and rape or multiple sex crimes, or they were the heads of drug gangs who'd delegated other people to kill or torture. So as the cases became more and more serious, it did become easier to hand out time of that kind. If someone is involved in killing 40 people, I really don't lose any sleep." Near the end of the book, Snyder reveals a more contemplative, less punitive side as she argues for alternative sentencing, that is, coming up with custom-tailored plans of punishments and rewards to help steer youthful offenders away from committing additional crimes.

Her many years on the bench, Snyder says, have generally reinforced her respect for the wisdom of juries. I have a lot of faith in the jury system. Every once in a while, frankly, it's dashed, like in the O. J. Simpson case, which I thought was a travesty of justice, I don't mind saying. But in most cases, I think juries reach just results. In [all my time as a judge], only once can I think of a verdict that I thought was absolutely ludicrous." Snyder swears that her book's truculent title has only one purpose. It's just meant to be catchy," she says. The maximum sentence for an A-1 felony in New York is 25 to life, and [the publisher] always wants you to come up with something dramatic. One day I'm sitting around early on in the book process and I'm with one of my kids and my husband, and I'm saying, ÔGee, you know, I need a dramatic title.' So my son pipes up and says, ÔHow about 25 to Life.' My husband and I look at each other and, suddenly, we go, ÔThat's great!' " In spite of being obliged to deal with human viciousness and misery day in and day out, Snyder voices no regrets. It's been a very exciting, interesting career," she concludes. I feel that it's been a constructive career, that every day when I get up I'm doing something worthwhile."

Get the Book

25 To Life

25 To Life

By Judge Leslie Shachtman
ISBN 9780446530200

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