She had moved beyond the courtroom, too, helping form domestic-abuse support groups, encouraging women to report violence against themselves and their children, urging community leaders to support her unit, under threat from the county budget ax. "I was able to get women to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Listen to this atrocity that's going on in the home,' " says Pirro. "It was all about going from one level to the next." One advocate who watched Pirro's rise from A.D.A. to family-court judge in 1990, then joined her 1993 campaign for district attorney, was Charlotte Watson, executive director of My Sister's Place, a local safe house for battered women. "At a time when it wasn't popular," says Watson, "she took out her machete and started clearing a path to make home life safer."
Pirro's crusade reached hundreds of women in countless cases that crossed her desk, but her machete frayed the nerves of co-workers. They detected an egomania in her grasping at high-profile murders and assaults that belonged to other units. "She wanted somebody to prepare the case, tied with a little bow, and she'd walk it across the finish line," says a former lead prosecutor. "There was this ever-expanding desire to increase her role."
"You know what?" Pirro says in response to the charge. "It wasn't about me. There was an issue, and it had to do with people being abused, mistreated, and ignored by the criminal-justice system, by society at large, victims afraid to come forward. It was about bringing attention to what I thought was an inequity in the systems that had to be remedied."
But the Port Chester murder was a case where restraint -- and even compassion -- might have been more appropriate. The mother, an immigrant named Maria Amaya, had by all accounts been a doting parent. But troubled by a deep depression, she believed her children, ages 3 to 11, were being corrupted by drugs and sex. Thinking they'd be better off in heaven, she slashed their throats with a knife as they slept, then attempted suicide by stabbing herself in the neck. Less than 24 hours later, even as the woman's husband begged for sympathy and neighbors pleaded for peace from the swarming camera crews, Pirro fanned the flames, staging a bedside arraignment in a hospital intensive-care unit.
"She always played hardball seeking publicity," says Carl Vergari, the man who hired Pirro and presided over the office for 26 years. "She's a bright and capable woman. But she's also very self-centered in everything she does. She was aggressive about the breadth of her responsibilities in the office, and that caused conflict. There was a problem keeping her in line. It was always hell reining her in."
It was never easy reining in Jeanine Ferris. Growing up a small-town girl in Elmira, New York, her father a mobile-home salesman and her mother a department-store model, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer by age 6. At 15, she marched into the offices of the local district attorney and practically demanded that she be taken on as a volunteer. "She was extraordinarily articulate and not at all shy," says Bruce Crew, then a part-time D.A. and now an appellate-court judge. "She followed me to depositions and such. I never encountered anyone with her tenacity and ambition. Never."
That ambition propelled her through Notre Dame High School in three years. After graduating from the University of Buffalo, she attended Albany Law School, where she met and fell in love with Al Pirro. The son of a Mount Vernon truck driver for Stella D'oro bakeries, his mother a waitress, he, too, was ambitious and driven. They married in 1975 and moved to Harrison, living in a downtown apartment across from a gas station.