Levin's friends certainly don't believe Ricco was concerned only with due process. "How could he try to taint the reputation of somebody who was trying to do good?" says Georgia Williams, who taught with Levin at Taft High School and testified in the trial. "I don't understand how Mr. Ricco can pray to Allah when what he's doing is ungodly."
On a rainy Friday night, Tony Ricco steers his prodigious navy-blue Chevy Tahoe through Harlem while narrating a tour that veers, block by block, from sweetly nostalgic ("During the summer, this block would have so many kids playing, you couldn't see from Seventh Avenue to Eighth Avenue") to hauntingly raw. Normally loquacious, Ricco suddenly goes silent as he turns west off Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard onto 123rd Street. "This block I've learned to tolerate," he says quietly, slowing the truck. "This building right here, in that basement, is where they found my sister dead. In a tub. Fifteen years old. Overdosed on heroin. Right in this building right here. Right down in that apartment."
Marcia died in 1970. Tony is one of six children, and the drug blight that devastated Harlem in the early seventies struck exactly half of the Ricco siblings. "Like most African-American families," Ricco says, "you have sort of two tracks going at the same time." One sister, Andrea, is recovering from a 25-year smack habit; a brother, John, "had some troubles with the law" as a teen, but now works with the homeless.
Then there's Amanda, who found refuge in numbers and is now a CPA; Suzanne, who earned a master's degree in education and is now a Boston school administrator; and the straightest of the straight, Tony. When Marcia died, 12-year-old Tony went into the street with a baseball bat, looking to hurt the people who'd fed his sister poison.
Today the 41-year-old lawyer oozes rectitude. His posture is flagpole-straight at all times, whether he is standing or sitting, walking or driving. From his gleaming shaved scalp to his ever-present bow tie and crisply starched shirt, down to his glossy black loafers, Ricco is immaculate.
When he climbs down to greet some friends outside the Tribe of Shabazz barber shop on 116th Street, Ricco is met with cheers. He smiles but doesn't waste time. His tone makes it clear he isn't interested in small talk. He looks one former client directly in the eyes and asks solemnly, "So how are you doing?" Of the dozen people Ricco talks to in an hour, nearly everyone has a "situation" in which he could use some legal help. Ricco patiently dispenses advice, along with his home and office phone numbers.
In part, Ricco is showing off his man-of-the-people realness for my benefit. He claims he doesn't want to run for office, though friends say he dreams of a judgeship. But regardless of his ambitions, these neighbors aren't slapping him on the back to make him look good for a reporter. Their testimonials -- and their respect for a black man who's succeeded in the larger world while staying true to his roots -- come from the heart.
Ricco has spent most of his life within a half-dozen blocks of where his sister died. His mother, Dolores, has worked for the Postal Service for 35 years. Ricco's late father had a rockier path. John Ricco saw combat during World War II, then came home to find few open doors. "My father was a very frustrated black man," Ricco says. "Tremendous ability, but he was a street-tough, no-nonsense person; every other word that came out of his mouth was a curse word. I remember that he had a letter from NBC that he showed me, where he applied for a job as a radio announcer in 1949. The letter said it was the policy not to hire colored announcers. My father became very bitter. Like a lot of black men, he withdrew; I'm lucky and blessed that he didn't do it before I came of age."
Ricco, who uses prison slang to joke that he was in "general population" at Charles Evans Hughes High School, nevertheless earned a Malcolm X scholarship to Adelphi University. There he met Greg Meeks, president of the Black Student Union, who pushed him to go to law school. Ricco got his J.D. from Northeastern University, in Boston, then clerked for civil court judge Bruce Wright. In 1982, after an unhappy stint with the state assembly banking committee, Ricco set up a solo practice.
Eight years ago, Ricco moved into a building overlooking Morningside Park and helped organize his fellow tenants to buy the place from the city; with his wife, Ayanna, a nurse in Mount Sinai's intensive-care unit, and their 8-year-old-son and 12-year-old daughter, Ricco is slowly renovating his apartment. "Tony has a real sense of conscience, a real racial identity," says his longtime friend Keith Wright, the state assemblyman and son of Judge Bruce Wright. "Growing up, Tony always had a mission, a purpose. He still does. It means a lot that he's stayed in the community to be an example."
Years of proximity to the evil, the stupid, and the violent turns many defense attorneys cynical. The effect on Ricco appears to be just the opposite. The more he defends people facing decades behind prison bars, the more he's driven to save souls. "Tony's biggest fault," says Roger Stavis, a co-counsel in the terrorism case, "is that he can never do enough for people."
No Ricco client escapes without a small sermon, often about the black people who sacrificed themselves so this generation could have opportunities. "One of the things I tell a lot of my clients is, they have a lifetime of making wrong choices," Ricco says. It is all the wrong choices he can't prevent -- and a country that often fails to live up to its ideals -- that feeds the rage that's just below Ricco's manicured surface.
In the evening darkness, Ricco slows his truck and peers into the gloom outside a bodega. He sees a kid he's been looking for: Sean, a 16-year-old just back from a juvenile-justice facility upstate. Ricco beckons. "Wassup, Sean, how you feelin', brother?"
"Ah-ight, Mr. Ricco, ah-ight," Sean says sheepishly.
"Tomorrow, two o'clock, can you come by my house?" Ricco is trying to hook the kid up with a tutorial program. "And if you see DaShawn, make sure he shows up, too."
"You been okay? How's your grandmother?"
Ricco isn't penetrating the teenage cool. He pauses, then goes in another direction. "You know your uncle's locked up? Uncle Rudy?"