Sotomayor is remembered as a zealous prosecutor

The detectives crouched low, guns in hand, sweeping the crumbling apartments, moving cautiously from room to room, barking at the two prosecutors to stay back, to watch out.

The lawyers were children of the city, raised in ethnic neighborhoods by families of modest means. But the poverty here in central Harlem startled them. Some of the abandoned buildings served as shooting galleries, places where drug addicts congregated. The air was rank, the threat of violence palpable.

In 1982, three years after leaving the comfort of Yale Law School, Sonia Sotomayor was gathering evidence for her first murder trial. She was helping to prosecute Richard Maddicks, dubbed the “Tarzan Burglar” because he used a rope to swing from rooftops into the windows of apartment buildings, sometimes shooting those he found inside.

“It really symbolizes what was going on in New York at the time -- a city engulfed in violence,” said Hugh H. Mo, the senior prosecutor with Sotomayor that day. “Life was cheap then.”

Though her critics portray the Supreme Court nominee as a liberal activist, her colleagues and legal opponents in the early 1980s draw a picture of her as a zealous prosecutor whose experiences combating crime have made her, according to experts who have studied her legal decisions, something of a law-and-order judge, especially when it comes to police searches and the use of evidence.

In two major rulings after she joined the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in 1998, she held that evidence could be used to convict a defendant even though police had violated his rights in seizing it. Sotomayor said that because the police and prosecutors acted “in good faith,” the evidence need not be thrown out.

In 1999, Sotomayor upheld the crack cocaine conviction of a New York man despite what she called a “mistaken arrest.” Last year, Sotomayor spoke for a 2-1 majority that upheld a man’s child pornography conviction, even though she agreed an FBI agent did not have probable cause to search his computer.

“I think her experience as a prosecutor balances out her liberal tendencies,” said New York University law professor Kenji Yoshino.

But when punishment is at issue, she has joined liberal opinions to limit prison terms in drug cases.

Gerald Lefcourt, a high- profile criminal defense lawyer in New York, appeared before Sotomayor while she was a federal district court judge. “She always seemed to be leaning toward the government -- not outrageously so, but if you look at a lot of her criminal law cases you can see she’s pretty conservative,” he said.

Lefcourt wasn’t surprised. He had faced off against Sotomayor when she was an assistant district attorney.

Sotomayor was “very police-like,” he said. “Dismissive of what the defendant had to say about anything.”

Stephen Goldenberg, who has worked for 36 years as a defense lawyer in New York, went up against Sotomayor in a case involving a shooting in a Puerto Rican housing project. Three defendants were charged with the crime, even though only one was the shooter.

“She was incensed that a shot was fired in a housing project,” Goldenberg said. “And the fact that these defendants were Puerto Rican -- she gave them no break.”

Sotomayor came home to New York from Yale -- she had grown up in the Bronx -- at a perilous time. The late 1970s were marked by a sharp rise in street crime, fueled by the drug trade.

She had been recruited by Dist. Atty. Robert M. Morgenthau, who sought to build an elite corps of talented prosecutors to take on the city’s problems.

Sotomayor, then 25, began on the bottom rung: handling misdemeanors in the hulking Art Deco fortress of Manhattan’s Criminal Courts Building. Friends say Sotomayor was drawn to the prosecutor’s office because she believed she could help Puerto Rican and other minority neighborhoods under siege from crime.

The office at her level was apolitical. “If you opened your eyes and saw the devastation that serious crime could wreak both on an individual level and a community level, it was impossible to be ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in a cliched way,” said Peter L. Zimroth, Morgenthau’s top assistant when Sotomayor was hired.

She joined Trial Bureau 50, which handled street crime. Her starting salary was $17,000 a year. Sotomayor, like other rookies, handled 100 cases at a time, along with working arraignments at what was called the complaint room, where the young lawyers took statements from police officers after an arrest.

Sotomayor and the other lawyers smoked incessantly. She drank can after can of the diet soda Tab. Twelve-hour days were the norm; when the lawyers also had to staff night court, they worked even longer.

It was a work-hard, play-hard, almost self-contained world, but when many of the lawyers repaired to Forlini’s, a working-class bar nestled behind the courthouse, Sotomayor rarely joined them. Her husband, Kevin Noonan, was studying for his doctorate in molecular biology at Princeton University, and Sotomayor often whipsawed between New York and central New Jersey. The marriage would end before Sotomayor left the district attorney’s office.

Sotomayor advanced quickly. “She brought a maturity to the job that the average prosecutor did not have,” said Peter Kougasian, a Princeton and Yale classmate who also worked with her in the district attorney’s office.

She was assigned to Mo, who had joined the office in 1976 as its first Asian American. His first impression: Sotomayor was “physically imposing, commanding,” he said. “She was very aggressive.”

Mo attributed that, in part, to the fact that she was a woman in an office dominated by men.

For Sotomayor, the Tarzan Burglar was a turning point of sorts -- a crucible. She had never dealt with anything as sprawling as the Maddicks case. Because Maddicks had committed so many separate crimes over a two-year period, “it was like seven trials put into one,” Mo said.

Mo said that Sotomayor helped convince Maddicks’ girlfriend to testify for the prosecution, and that once the trial started her dexterity was impressive. With one witness, she could patiently draw out the details of the drug trade. With another, the sister of one of the murder victims, she used a softer touch.

“She was able to gently bring out the loss she observed, the trauma she suffered,” Mo said.

After nearly a month of trial, the jury found Maddicks guilty and sentenced him to 67 1/2 years to life in prison.

Afterward, Sotomayor took a rare trip to Forlini’s. “We saved the few dollars we had for celebrating a conviction,” Mo said.

It was January 1983. A year later, Sotomayor left the district attorney’s office, moving on to private practice.

David Savage and Andrew Zajac of the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Tina Susman in New York contributed to this report.