As the reading of the verdict ends, the sobbing begins. Corey Arthur’s girlfriend cries: Arthur is guilty of felony murder in the second degree. Jonathan Levin’s mother weeps: Arthur, acquitted of first-degree murder in the death of her beloved son, has dodged a life sentence.
One man heads straight for Anthony Ricco. He is a friend of Levin’s, and during the trial he endured a withering cross-examination by Ricco, the defense lawyer, who hammered at the friend’s estimates of how often Levin smoked marijuana. The friends and family of the murdered Levin, a high-school teacher who went out of his way to help students, including Arthur, are furious, believing that Ricco’s defense tried to tarnish Levin’s saintly image for the benefit of his accused killer.
“How,” the man demands of Ricco, “can you sleep at night?”
One week after the verdict, the defense lawyer is still seething over the confrontation. “I was getting ready to punch him in his mouth,” Ricco says, his large brown eyes taking on a nasty glint. “I told him, ‘You don’t back up, I’m gonna put you to sleep.’ “
Tony Ricco sleeps very well, thank you. But not because he lacks a conscience. In fact, the Levin case troubles Ricco deeply, and for reasons that might surprise Levin’s loved ones.
In 1966, a runty 9-year-old boy from a destitute block in Harlem, taking advantage of New York’s first experiment in open public-school enrollment, was bused from his home on the corner of West 122nd Street to an elementary school on East 57th Street. He was fascinated and bewildered. Not only was he surrounded by white faces, but most of his new classmates at P.S. 59 were wealthy beyond his comprehension. Fortunately, the boy’s fifth-grade teacher, a white Jewish woman from the West Side, went out of her way to help him and to introduce him to a world he’d never known.
That child, named Anthony Ricco, grew to be a lean six-foot-tall man. “I’m thankful to this day,” Ricco says, “that I had a person like Mrs. Pierce as a teacher. When I’m representing Corey, and I’m learning about his relationship with Mr. Levin, I know what that’s about, because of her.”
Deborah Plotz-Pierce has kept in touch with Ricco, attending his wedding and proudly watching his career. “Believe me – I’m a teacher, a mother, a Jew,” she says. “You don’t think my heart goes out to the Levin family? But someone has to do the job Tony is doing, and I respect him for that. I don’t think he’s attracted to lost causes. I think he goes after lost people, because in his family, he was surrounded by lost people. He couldn’t help them, but he can help others now.”
The Corey Arthur trial turned Ricco into a tabloid villain. Review some of the other clients Ricco has vigorously defended – a co-conspirator in the Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman terrorism case, the man who shouted “Let’s get a Jew!” to an angry Crown Heights mob minutes before Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed, assorted murderous drug dealers and child abusers – and you could easily caricature him as a sleaze.
In court, Ricco is a dramatic presence. He is a gifted storyteller, and his summations and cross-examinations mix legal erudition with street slang worthy of a Fila-wearing homeboy. Ricco can also be so cutting that it verges on cruel.
“Tony can try a case just as well as Johnnie Cochran,” says his friend Greg Meeks, a Democratic congressman from Queens. “I say Johnnie not because he’s black but because Cochran has the same reputation that F. Lee Bailey had twenty years ago: the defense lawyer to handle unpopular cases. That’s the level Tony is reaching.”
Ricco has few illusions about some of the people he’s involved with. “If anything, being Muslim made it more difficult for me in the Sheik case, because other people’s concept of what religious principles mean sometimes are in conflict with your own,” Ricco says. “Those kinds of crimes have nothing to do with any religious belief. I think some of those men that were convicted in that case were entrapped by the government. Some of those men, our country needed to convict them and send a message. And they were convicted. A couple of people in that room were the real deal. If I saw them getting on a flight overseas, I’d get off.”
Some notorious cases come to Ricco because he’s part of New York’s capital-defender system, which provides lawyers to clients facing the death penalty; he handles plenty of mundane transactions as well. Ricco welcomes defendants facing long odds, as a classic political statement – that the justice system has to work for everyone. “We don’t believe in a system that says, ‘Yeah, sure – wink, wink – everybody gets a fair trial, and everybody’s entitled to a lawyer – but they’re not supposed to be good lawyers,’ ” Ricco says. “Corey Arthur is entitled to the same fact-finding process as anyone else, and that is difficult for people to accept. If he didn’t have people involved to make sure that happened, it would not have happened. I guarantee it. After the way in which I grew up uptown, I feel I’m strong enough to do it.”
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?”
Now he’s got Sean’s attention.
“He wrote me a letter,” Ricco says. “He’s on the Island.”
“Word?” Sean says, sounding slightly rattled. “Dag.” He promises to visit Ricco, then ambles back to the rainy corner.
Ricco pulls away and spots another pair of idling kids. He tries to cajole them into dropping by tomorrow, too, but gets shrugs in response. For the first time, the upbeat Ricco seems depressed. “These kids here, we been tryin’ to do stuff with them since they been 8 and 9. And we’re losing. We are losing,” he says. “They growing up, hat on sideways, standing on the corner. We done took ‘em on canoe trips, rafting trips, this, that. It’s good to do it, but they need more than somebody who’s occasionally saying let’s go do something. They need fathers. That’s why, when we got involved in the thing with Corey, it was so clear, man, what Corey was missing. And the irony of it is, the guy was trying to help the kid. You can’t help but respect and admire what Mr. Levin was trying to do for young people. And the tragedy of the loss of his life is, to some people, it will sort of be like, ‘See, this is what happens – don’t help these people.’ “
He doesn’t dispute that what Corey Arthur did was wrong. Yet Ricco believes Levin crossed a dangerous line: Treating Arthur as an equal. For all the years Levin spent teaching poor kids at Taft, Ricco says, he was naïve; he could never really know what it meant for Arthur to live in the ghetto. Levin reached out in trust, but he didn’t fully understand what and whom he was grabbing hold of.
Tony Ricco believes he understands the two disparate worlds, the streets and the mainstream, but even he’s not sure how to reconcile them. “You have children, I have children, they’re gonna inherit this world,” he says. “Hopefully our kids will be like us. But there’s a lot of people who are not like us, and our kids are gonna come into contact with them. And we need to know more about what it is we’re coming in contact with. Maybe some of that will come out of this tragedy. Maybe not. I don’t know.” He sighs. “I’m not a predictor of the future. I’m just a lawyer.”