The tough-as-nails Snyder had achieved many breakthroughs in her career—she was the first woman to prosecute a murder in New York City and the founder of the nation's first sex-crimes unit—but this was a first for her to which she had never aspired: She was a target. That night she huddled with her husband, pediatrician Fredric Snyder, to discuss their options. A Jamaican drug lord had apparently tried to take the law into his own hands by ordering the murder of the judge presiding at his trial; police were saying she and her family would need 24-hour protection. But Snyder's husband, always supportive, insisted that quitting wasn't an option. "He said, 'That would be letting the bad guys win,'" she recalls.
Since that day more than a decade ago, Snyder, 60, has been threatened several more times, and the plainclothes detectives who trail her round-the-clock have long since become like members of her family. What's more, the bad guys have been losing ground. Thanks to Snyder, who is known for setting sky-high bail and doling out supersize sentences, a large squadron of felons, Mob bosses and drug lords are now doing hard time in state penitentiaries. Snyder makes no secret of the fact that she revels in her work. Staring down from the bench at the end of the trial of a gang of murdering drug dealers called the Wild Cowboys in 1995, she said, "You laughed in the faces of the police and the criminal justice system. No one could touch you.... But now we know this: You are not above the law.... I am going to make the rest of your lives very simple." With that, she sentenced five of the killers to 116 years or more in prison.
Snyder's passion for the job—detailed in her new book, 25 to Life—has won her some fairly unconventional plaudits. On the street she is called Ice Princess or "232," a reference to a two-century-plus sentence she doled out to a multiple murderer in 1993. And U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents have seized thousands of tiny envelopes printed with the judge's image, her face framed by flowing hair, used by pushers in The Bronx to package high-grade Colombian heroin. "At first I was stunned," says Snyder. "That's not exactly the way you want to be remembered."
On a more serious note, some critics allege that Snyder runs a courtroom that tilts distinctly in favor of prosecutors. "She's absolutely charming," says Murray Richman, former president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who counts Snyder as a friend. "But I always say the Christians had a better chance with the lions than a defense attorney does with her." For her fans, though, Snyder is one of the reasons that New York City is much safer than it was 10 years ago. "She's had the tough cases and given out tough sentences," says former mayor Ed Koch, who appointed Snyder to the bench in 1983. "She's a most courageous lady."
Snyder argues persuasively that she loses little sleep over her work. "I've had an incredible number of violent and serious cases, and I treat those cases with the utmost seriousness," she says. "And if the people are convicted by a jury, I do generally remove them from society forever. That just seems reasonable and correct."
Born in New York and raised in Virginia and Maryland, Snyder was still a child when her parents—Lester, 90, a retired professor of French literature and philosophy, and Billie, also 90, a homemaker—started saying that someone who liked to argue so much should grow up to be a lawyer. She was 16 when she finished high school in Baltimore and headed to Radcliffe College, Harvard's former sister school for women, on a full scholarship.
Snyder graduated in 1962 and took a one-year business course to help support herself and the man she intended to marry, a blond and blue-eyed Harvard jock. But when the relationship collapsed she headed to Paris. There, she worked for a pitch-fork manufacturer until her mother and father, dismayed at her seeming lack of direction, arrived to drag their daughter home. "Parents had a little more control then," she says. Back in the U.S., Snyder enrolled at Case Western Reserve University law school in Cleveland, becoming one of three women in her class.
After a two-year stint at a corporate law firm in Manhattan, where the chief thrill was sitting in on a meeting with members of the Rolling Stones, Snyder landed a job with the Manhattan District Attorney's office in 1968. That was also the year she met her future husband, then in his first year of private practice, on a blind date set up by a friend. Fred Snyder, now 65, made reservations at two restaurants, one dark and romantic, the other louder and lively. "She was kind of cute, so we went to the nice place," he says. Ten days later the pair decided to marry, and 3½ weeks after that they did so at the 21 Club with six guests on hand. (For security reasons, the Snyders, who live in an Upper East Side apartment filled with paintings by Fred, prefer not to discuss their grown children.)
While still a relative rookie at the Manhattan D.A.'s office, Snyder was assigned to a double rape case that changed the course of her career. "This defendant had grabbed two strangers off the street and dragged them into a tenement building," Snyder recalls. Both women testified that he had raped them. But because of the wording of New York's rape statute, physical evidence (which was flawed in this case) was needed to prove the crime, even though each women testified she had witnessed the attack on the other. Disgusted at the defendant's acquittal—to mention nothing of what she recalls as the judge's boorish attitude toward the victims—Snyder went to work lobbying the state legislature to reform the law, and in 1972 the statute was rewritten.
Seeing there was more to be done, she persuaded her boss to establish the country's first team of prosecutors wholly dedicated to handling sex crimes and treating their victims with sensitivity. "Back then," she says, "people viewed sex crimes as crimes of sex, but what we came to learn was that these were crimes of control, domination and humiliation." She also broke through a barrier in the D.A.'s office that excluded women from the homicide bureau. "It was all male, and it had always been all male," recalls John Keenan, 72, then Manhattan's chief assistant district attorney and now a federal judge. "There was a big cultural change going on 30 years ago that the current generation has only read about. In her own way, Leslie was a major part of that revision."
Snyder became a judge during the '80s crack-cocaine epidemic that rocked New York and many other cities. As crime soared, the court system swelled to accommodate complex, multidefendant cases that demanded disciplined and highly organized judges. Snyder became a specialist at such trials, including one involving 41 defendants, 40 murders and virtually an entire Bronx neighborhood held . hostage. As if that weren't hard enough, Snyder also had to contend with half a dozen credible death threats—including, in 2000, a contract put out by a jailed stock-fraud suspect named Stuart Winkler, for whom she had set bail at $1 million. Winkler was convicted of conspiracy to murder Snyder later that year.
Now approaching her 20th year on the bench, Judge Snyder does not deny that she would welcome the chance to run for Manhattan D.A., although the current holder of that office, Robert Morgenthau, 83, shows no signs of retiring. Fortunately, she says, she still enjoys what she's doing. "I like the phrase 'Truth, justice and the American way,'" says Snyder, who clearly considers all three her vocation. "You can take vicious criminals and put them away for life, and you can put young people who aren't violent yet into drug programs or education. So being a judge," she says, "you can actually do some good."