NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The scene in a gritty Brooklyn neighborhood had the feel of a political campaign stop, except the stately man trailed by aides, a bodyguard and two news photographers wasn’t making speeches or working a crowd.
Instead, longtime federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein — 6-foot-2 and looking fit — strolled mostly in silence on Friday around the Louis Armstrong Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant — the same streets where authorities say armed thugs once terrorized residents with an “open-air drug bazaar.”
Weinstein, who’s overseeing the case against the crack cocaine crew, had decided it was important to leave his chambers, don his dark overcoat and fedora and visit the defendants’ former turf. The outing on a quiet and crisp winter afternoon drew some stares, but was otherwise uneventful.
Before slipping into a black van to be driven back to the courthouse, the judge explained that he sometimes needs a firsthand reality check on his cases.
“Otherwise,” he said, “it gets very abstract.”
The 30-minute foray was unorthodox for the formal world of the federal judiciary. But Weinstein, 89, has long had a reputation as a legal maverick.
As a U.S. district judge in Brooklyn for more than four decades, Weinstein has championed class-action cases resulting in sweeping verdicts and rulings against the makers of Agent Orange, handgun manufacturers and tobacco companies. His liberal decisions have angered conservatives and run afoul of appellate courts.
He handed out life sentences in 2009 in the closely watched case of two police detectives convicted of moonlighting as hitmen for the mob — but only after an appeals court reversed his decision to throw out their convictions based on the statute of limitations. He’s also shown disdain for harsh sentences for low-level offenders in more obscure cases.
In a book about mass tort litigation, Weinstein espoused a belief in “humankind’s obligation to create a just society.”
The World War II veteran still carries a heavy caseload. In court, he favors business suits over black robes. He often presides while seated at a conference table with lawyers and defendants, rather than from the bench.
Before the takedown at the Armstrong Houses, the defendants were “selling drugs and carrying firearms in broad daylight and in plain view of law-abiding citizens,” prosecutors wrote in court papers. Investigators shot surveillance video of some of the brazen dealers shooting pool between transactions at a table set up on the sidewalk.
After a flurry of guilty pleas, Weinstein received appeals for mercy from defense attorneys arguing their youthful clients were products of abusive upbringings and deserved a second chance.
“Yes, I agree he made some terrible decisions but he has learned from them,” the sister of Pedro “White Bread” Torres wrote to the judge.
Last month, Weinstein announced in a court order that he would be visiting the Armstrong Houses under the protection of a deputy U.S. marshal “to assist in sentencing.” He invited along Torres’ lawyer, Margaret Shalley and prosecutor Daniel Silver.
Shalley said Friday she’s hopeful “something good will come of this.” Another defense attorney who tagged along, Heidi Cesare, called the outing “unusual.” But, she added, “Judge Weinstein is unusual.”