Sol Wachtler: A man who would be everything writes of his fall from grace


I was editorial page editor of the New York Daily News when in January 1985, Mario Cuomo named Sol Wachtler Chief Judge of the State of New York - a job that combines that of chief executive of a $1 billion statewide unified court system with chief magistrate of the state's appellate court of last resort. Powers both behind and in thrones of influence in the state and the land insisted that Wachtler, a moderate Republican, was destined to be governor, vice presidential candidate, U.S. Supreme Court justice, or all three, seriatim.

It was the nature of our jobs that Wachtler and I saw a good deal of each other, and talked a lot about public policy. With more than 20 years of witnessing and writing about courts and judges behind me, I was skeptical of judicial heroism.

But watching him at work up to the beginning of 1990, I felt Wachtler justified every bit of the hyperbole that had poured forth. He was a judge and a man of truly extraordinary intelligence, diligence, decency and devotion to justice and government.

Then he went crazy.

And now he has written about it, in a compelling and maddening book, "After the Madness: A Judge's Own Prison Memoir"

(Random House. 353 pages. $24).

Technically, Wachtler went almost crazy - not crazy enough to escape prosecution with a defense of insanity.

The facts are familiar. They came to climax when he was given a 15-month federal prison sentence on a guilty plea to aggravated harassment. Though the book leaves very fuzzy the details of his pre-plea legal maneuvers, he does accept guilt for "shameful and unpardonable acts" because "my capacity was diminished but I knew what I was doing was wrong."

Bizarre demise

Those acts were a series of more than a year of elaborate, bizarre letters, phone calls, and the manufacturing of fictitious characters, to frighten his former lover, a woman 17 years his junior, into returning to him. In the book, he says bitterly that the woman should have dealt with him directly, instead of going to the FBI, which then tracked him until finally, after a threat to kidnap the woman's daughter, agents arrested Wachtler on the Long Island Expressway.

He writes that in the summer of 1990 "my life began to disintegrate." He was having constant and severe headaches. A C.A.T. scan showed a shadow that he self-diagnosed as a brain tumor. He was depressed. He writes that he avoided consulting a psychiatrist out of vanity and ambition: He wanted to be governor, and more.

His depression, and his alternating manic behavior, were exacerbated by a variety of drugs he obtained from a series of doctors, none of whom he told he was already taking other drugs. At the climax, he was gulping massive doses of Halcion, a sleeping pill, Tenuate, an "upper," and Pamelor, an antidepressant.

The book is written as the diary of his year in two federal prison facilities, tough diagnostic centers where there was much solitary confinement and rough treatment. Neither place was a "Club Fed." Wachtler suffered, no question about that.

He describes with often colorful detail many of his fellow prisoners, including some major Mafia personages. These are sympathetic stories, and Wachtler cannot be denied the human quality of sympathy. But finally they seem to make the book increasingly defensive or self-pitying.

Throughout, there are short, coherent essays on public policy, especially on justice. They suffer from the same self-indulgence. In a bit about the grand jury system, for example - from its origins in the 12th century forward - his ultimate point is that he believes that grand jury secrecy was violated in his own case: "If anyone should try to convince you that the grand jury is not a device used by prosecutors to garner publicity at the expense of someone still presumed innocent, watch out! The deed to the Brooklyn Bridge is probably in his back pocket."

His observations on the misery of prison life, and the arbitrariness of mandatory sentencing standards, are strongly put, but familiar to anyone who follows the issue.

Unanswered questions

At the end of the book, and presumably today, he is being treated by a psychiatrist, and still on medication. He is running a non-profit service that provides nonjudicial conflict resolution. He takes no salary.

In his epilogue, he claims a new beginning, "knowing more about a world I had dealt with all my adult life but never saw; more about moral weakness and the frailty of the human spirit."

It is, in all, a compelling book, fascinating. There is courage in it, and a still-fine mind. Sadly, though, I find the book more fascinating for what it evades than for what it confronts.

Wachtler, a man of legendary articulateness and sureness of language, dodges a full or convincing explanation of the nature of his criminal acts. He glosses over details that would have - or might have - made what he did more understandable. Finishing the book, I felt I knew no more about Wachtler's experience of falling into an abyss of manic depression than I did at the time, reading simply the newspaper accounts.

The closest the book comes to exploring the mystery or the drama or the tragedy or the pathology that made Wachtler's case so compelling interesting appears near the end:

"How could I have written those detestable letters? How could I, in playing my mindless 'mind games' with Joy, have been so insensitive, so indifferent to the pain I was inflicting on so many people, not to mention my court and my profession?"

Maybe I missed something, but at the end of reading of his book, I have no better idea of the answers than I did before opening the front cover.

! Pub Date: 4/06/97

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