Free to speak, stop-and-frisk judge claims some victories
NEW YORK (AP) -- Tossing the gavel aside, feisty Judge Shira Scheindlin is speaking out, declaring victory over critics in the battle over police stop-and-frisk tactics and telling why she thinks the government spoiled its chance at conviction in four trials of John "Junior" Gotti.
Scheindlin, 69, ended over a quarter century on the bench Friday to return to private practice, yearning for public interest work in prison reform, voting rights and medical care.
She says she isn't leaving the lifetime appointment because of controversy.
"Am I walking out mad? No. No," she says.
It might be understandable if she was upset after a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed her from the stop-and-frisk case in 2013 after 14 years, saying she ran afoul of the code of conduct for U.S. judges.
Shocked at an order she now calls "lawless," she took the unusual step of issuing a statement to the media that day.
Support from lawyers and judges nationwide, along with newspaper editorials, pressured the court to backtrack, saying it never meant to imply she was unethical, she recalled.
"I've never seen a personal attack like that," she says.
Scheindlin said the follow-up 2nd Circuit opinion was almost apologetic, resurrecting her reputation.
"So I thought in the end I came out the victor. I really do. I thought they were the loser," she said. "I was the winner."
The unusual appeals action came two months after Scheindlin concluded police officers sometimes carried out stop-and-frisk unconstitutionally by discriminating against minorities.
Scheindlin references the ruling with pride, saying it is widely read in law schools and that a remedies opinion is used nationwide to guide police reform.
Mostly, she's proud of the reduction of stop-and-frisk encounters in New York City from nearly 700,000 in 2011 to roughly 25,000 in 2015 under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who settled the case, ending appeals.
"That's a 96 percent reduction. And nothing's blown up. The city goes on, the crime rate is steady or dropping," she says.
Her face brightened at mention of the Gotti trials from 2005 to 2009. After his father, the former Gambino family crime boss, died in prison, the younger Gotti put up an unusual defense, saying he quit organized crime.
Scheindlin calls it a "sympathetic defense" made more believable by "one terrible mistake" by prosecutors that contrasted his good-guy appearance with the testimony of "sleazy cooperators."
"They played the tapes of his prison visits to his dying father. And what you saw on those tapes was a very, very likable son. I remember being moved myself," she said.
She said other prison tapes "showed him as kind of an everyday guy willing to mix with other prisoners, black and white."
And she says the persona was aided in the first trial when a courtroom speaker emitted a gunshot-like sound, causing Gotti to spring from his seat shouting: "'It wasn't me. I didn't do it.' And it was so funny. ... The whole jury laughed."
Scheindlin said she believes the government thought it was her fault it could not convict Gotti.
After three mistrials, prosecutors brought a new indictment changed enough so it could get a new judge, a tougher one, she says. She was amused when a fourth jury deadlocked.
"That was very vindicating," she says, smiling.
She said if the government had not gotten a new judge, she would have blocked a fourth trial because "nobody should be tried a fourth time."
It wasn't the first time Scheindlin had drawn the government's wrath.
Less than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, she found the imprisonment of material witnesses in the terrorism probe unconstitutional, a decision conflicting with other judges.
Later, she presided over the trial of Osama Awadallah, a 21-year-old Jordanian college student in El Cajon, California, accused of lying about knowing two Sept. 11 hijackers.
When the jury voted 11-to-1 for conviction, she refused jurors' request to eliminate the lone holdout.
"He was deliberating. He just couldn't convince them and they couldn't convince him," she says.
After the trial, jurors admitted they had disregarded her warning to only consider evidence.
"They were talking about people they lost in 9/11, their neighbors," Scheindlin says. "They were very emotional. They were crying. This was bad news because this guy was not a terrorist."
At a second trial, lawyers and the judge reworked a jury questionnaire to weed out bias, especially against Muslims.
"A year later, suddenly it was 12-zip for acquittal," she says. "The very same trial, not a word was different."
Bias was eliminated and "and the mood of the country had shifted," she said. "There was a lot of second guessing of the president's policies."
As she begins work Monday for JAMS, a private provider of mediation and arbitration services and Manhattan-based law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, Scheindlin says her greatest contribution to law may be decisions she issued creating boundaries for handling electronic evidence.
"I'm sort of known as the mother of e-discovery," Scheindlin said.
Scheindlin, who was nominated to the district court by Democratic President Bill Clinton, said she thinks she's leaving the bench on a high note with a lone regret. She'd just been assigned a lawsuit about the alleged abuse of women in prisons, the kind of case she loves.
"It was tailor made for my name," she says, adding she knows it's time to move on. "I didn't want to get over-the-hill."