The education of Cyrus Vance Jr.

From the archives:

The library was full of guns.

Leather-bound law volumes, potted plants, a well-trod carpet—in the middle of this understated display of institutional sobriety lay 13 semiautomatic weapons on a folding card table.

Cyrus Vance Jr., in a dark pinstriped suit and tortoiseshell glasses, stood behind a podium next to the gun display, shoulder-to-shoulder with a pack of black-clad, thick-necked cops and investigators.

“We believe we have dismantled one of central Harlem’s most violent and destructive criminal street gangs,” he told the reporters and camera crews gathered in the law library on the eighth floor of his downtown office.

As he laid out a tale of firearms and violence, his voice softened: “The crews are getting younger.”

Almost two years after voters chose him as Manhattan’s first new district attorney in over a quarter century, Vance is still perfecting a public role that requires him to exemplify law and order. His appearance that day showed it. Not yet entirely comfortable with forces that lock up bad guys, not entirely without sympathy for the people who get locked up, Vance can still find himself as out of place as a gun in a library.

In 2009 Vance’s thoughtful, measured approach to criminal justice earned him the endorsement of the legal establishment, the editorial boards and predecessor Robert Morgenthau, the paterfamilias of criminal justice in New York. But a string of high-profile losses has some who once supported him questioning his judgment.

Vance occupies an office where past success has been determined by its occupants’ longevity. He has two more years to convince the public he isn’t in over his head—that his stumbles were merely the very public education of a nonpolitician.

Three months after Vance settled into the office, 33 youths were arrested after marauding gangs fought their way through Times Square and Herald Square, leaving four people shot.

It was a vivid image of New York slipping back to the bad old days, and the new district attorney stepped up to counter it. He showed up in person for the arraignments in Manhattan Criminal Court, where prosecutors at first refused to offer the usual plea bargains on disorderly conduct charges.

“New York cannot take one step backward in our fight to keep our streets safe,” Vance said afterward.

But four months later, his office took a no-jail plea bargain from one of the worst offenders of the night—a 19-year-old caught with a gravity knife who gave a cop a concussion while resisting arrest.

Perhaps Vance’s shifting stance was a rookie slip as he tried to find his footing in a complicated world. He plugged ahead at his campaign promises to reorganize the office and oversaw the routine prosecutions that fill the hallways of 100 Centre St. But by the middle of this summer, a series of defeats left him reeling.

He inherited from Morgenthau the 2008 case of two NYPD officers accused of raping a drunken woman they had been called to help. It was a difficult prosecution: The woman couldn’t remember critical parts of the alleged assault, and there was no DNA evidence to bridge that gap. Still, when a jury acquitted the “rape cops” of all felonies this spring, Vance took the blame.

He also lost cases Morgenthau had brought against three contractors charged with manslaughter in the deaths of two firefighters in the former Deutsche Bank building. He brought a case against two men accused by the NYPD of plotting to blow up synagogues, but couldn’t convince a grand jury to indict them on the most serious terrorism charges.

And then a maid at the Sofitel New York said she had been raped by the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Vance took up her cause. It was the biggest case of his short career, one with the potential to define him—especially after it blew up in his face.

“We are not an office that is focused exclusively on winning, getting points on a board,” Vance said. He was sitting in his office a few days after the news conference with the guns, repeating the same logic he had used to defend his decisions on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, when his office decided to end its prosecution in August.

“We really do view our job as ultimately administering justice,” he said. “If we believe after careful review that, that a case has changed in its complexion, in such a manner that we do not know any longer beyond a reasonable doubt what we believe actually happened, then we have an obligation, I think, to act on that.”

Vance, like his prosecutors, like most of New York City, believed the maid. DNA tests showed sexual contact occurred. But when his investigators found distressing signs of deceit in her background—and found she had lied about a gang rape in her native Guinea—they concluded they had a victim they could not support and a case they could not prosecute.

Strauss-Kahn walked free. Vance won support from many prominent lawyers—Leslie Crocker Snyder, who ran against him two years earlier, wrote a sympathetic piece for the Daily News—but others saw a double standard. The “rape cops” had no DNA but a white victim and went to trial; Strauss-Kahn was just the opposite.

“It sends a bad message to women,” said State Sen. Bill Perkins, one of several minority legislators who urged Vance to move forward with the case, even if he might lose. “He had initiated the call for an investigation, and then he changed his mind when the pressure seemed to come on him. A DA that buckles under pressure like that is not good for women, obviously in this case, and it’s not good in general.”

Ironically, Vance won office after campaigning on promises to pursue crimes directed at women and seek stronger penalties for perpetrators of intimate partner violence.

“It wasn’t good for him politically to make this arrest,” said Vance’s friend Bob Silver, a partner at law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner. “Then, despite an enormous amount of opposition from groups who are key voters for him, despite their vocal, vehement opposition, he decides that because the witness is obviously unreliable, he has to drop the case. Ultimately that was the right thing to do, but politically it was not in his interest.”

Or as veteran consultant Hank Sheinkopf, a close friend to Morgenthau, once put it: “People don’t forget about rape.”

Critics said the Strauss-Kahn case was an example of a calculated political decision that backfired when he dropped the case, alienating the voter blocs he needs to court the most: women and people of color.

Vance, who admits he was a political novice, has had a rude introduction to political life in other ways, as well. His office needs money, and he has to secure it from the city’s political establishment. In his office, yards from legendary prosecutor Frank Hogan’s old desk and Morgenthau’s wire fan, he talked about sharpening his political skills.

“I hope I’ve gotten better,” Vance said. “I believe I’ve gotten better. But others will tell you whether they think I’ve gotten better.”

Vance succeeded at mending the once-fractured relationship his office had with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Unlike Morgenthau, who was insulated from political pressure by dint of age and a half-century’s worth of political clout, Vance needs Bloomberg’s help. A key part of his platform, a family justice center, is still unfunded. A bill increasing domestic violence penalties that Vance hoped would pass the state Legislature fell prey to partisan infighting in the State Senate.

His office’s $91 million budget depends on a variety of sources, including the city’s budget, controlled by Bloomberg, and discretionary funds from both the City Council and the borough president.

But Vance also seemed to make a key decision deferential to the mayor.

The office prosecuted John Haggerty, a consultant to Bloomberg’s 2009 reelection campaign, who was convicted of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the mayor’s campaign. Vance’s prosecutors took the unusual step of granting Bloomberg immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Experts wondered why Haggerty was the only person tried in a case where it seemed Bloomberg’s campaign had skirted campaign-finance laws—though Vance did score a much-needed victory when the jury convicted Haggerty of felonies.

Asked whether he’d deliberately courted the mayor’s favor to mend their relationship, Vance said, “It always is better to have people on your side than opposite you when you’re trying to achieve an objective.”

When Morgenthau occupied the most prominent local prosecutor’s office in America, taking on corporate crooks as well as vicious murderers, he enforced a credo among his lawyers that they must prosecute without fear or favor. To Vance’s critics, the Haggerty case seemed like an example of a favorable prosecution pursued out of political fear.

On NY1 after the case’s conclusion, host Errol Louis asked a roundtable of consultants to weigh in on “another of the political aspects of this case.” Three of the four consultants agreed the case raised more questions than it answered.

“I thought [Vance] was guilty of selective prosecution,” said Republican consultant Jake Menges. Only consultant George Arzt, who worked on the Vance 2009 campaign, said the case was sound on principle.

Vance’s failures have made headlines, but his successes have not.

He set up a conviction integrity unit to look for prosecutorial mistakes from the past and set them right. New York has had far fewer wrongful-conviction cases than some other states, but the creation of the unit sent a message that runs counter to many prosecutors’ refusals to admit the possibility of error. Vance also cleared a persistent backlog of criminal cases. He fulfilled many of his 2009 campaign promises before he was halfway through his term.

This strategy won over politicians who once supported other candidates, like Upper West Side Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who initially supported Crocker Snyder.

“If he’s running for reelection, I’m supporting him,” Kellner said.

Vance seems to give extra attention to street crime and domestic violence, a different tack from his predecessor, who routinely prosecuted cases of national and international scope. Vance is working through city crime block by block, literally. The office has made more than 2,000 community presentations to build support for a plan to create neighborhood district attorneys who can focus on specific neighborhoods in New York to understand the underlying criminal connections.

“Bottom line, we need as a DA’s office to always stay focused on what’s happening in terms of street safety and personal safety in Manhattan,” Vance said. “That won’t ever become a second-tier priority for us.”

Yet other first-tier priorities loom.

Manhattan Criminal Court is clogged with more than 500 arrests and desk-appearance tickets for Occupy Wall Street protesters arrested under confusing and chaotic circumstances. They are refusing the usual stay-out-of-trouble dismissals because they want to keep protesting.

How to pursue those cases—especially if hundreds of defendants insist on individual trials—will shape Vance’s image in the eyes of liberal Democrats, as well as the financial and real estate titans who have an outsize influence in Manhattan.

At the same time, trouble is looming with the NYPD, the same agency that needs to work hand in glove with prosecutors. Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson has indicted officers in a ticket-fixing scandal that no one seriously thinks is confined to just one borough; other cops have been snared on more serious charges, from planting drugs on the innocent to smuggling guns.

Former Mayor Ed Koch, who once supported Crocker Snyder and now gives full-throated endorsement to Vance, says he has no doubt Vance and the city’s other three district attorneys will bring their own ticket-fixing indictments.

“I’m convinced that all four of those who have not yet done it will do it, including him,” Koch said, before calling for an independent commission to investigate the NYPD that would be similar to the Knapp Commission of the 1970s, which revealed an agency rotten to the core.

Part of the call for a new investigative commission comes from a report published by the Citizens Crime Commission, headed by Vance’s former challenger Richard Aborn.

“Let me just say this,” Vance said, locking his fingers together. “We prosecute police cases in this office. Just as an instance, a police sergeant took a plea for falsifying information related to arrests.… It’s an issue of whether you want to have, as you had under the Knapp Commission, 50 lawyers and 50 staff members, occupying a full floor of the World Trade Center.”

Vance ran for office promising to be the tough-on-crime prosecutor who would also be wise and above politics. He would be the district attorney who not only compassionately sussed out the causes of crime, but also crushed it when he found it.

“That person doesn’t exist,” said one person who worked closely with Vance during the 2009 campaign.

Vance’s supporters, including former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who once worked with Vance as a young prosecutor, insist that his medium—careful, thoughtful prosecutions—is the message.

“The important criterion is, are they pursuing justice the right way?” Spitzer said. “While it is always easy in the immediacy of a verdict to look back and sometimes cast negative judgment, I think Cy has done a superb job, and I’m confident that over time the public will understand that.”

Vance’s first term is up in two years, and incumbent district attorneys tend to be reelected. His supporters expect that by the next time his name appears on a ballot, he will have learned to fill the office that Morgenthau left empty. His rivals will be watching for more signs that he hasn’t.

Standing in his law library, looking at a tableful of guns through tortoiseshell glasses, the former law professor talked about getting firearms off the streets of Manhattan, but he may as well have been providing the justification for why he should stay in office.

One block with fewer guns would lead, over time, to a city with fewer guns—and two years in office could lead to another term and, maybe, a legacy.

“This,” he said, “is incremental, slow, important work.”