By Lorenzo Carcaterra
December 04, 1989 12:00 PM

New York State Supreme Court Justice Edwin Torres turns to the chief court officer and nods. The massive brown wood door to the right of the jury box creaks open. Six officers scattered around the room stiffen, hands poised above holstered guns. A 22-year-old man, convicted of murdering a 62-year-old New York City cleaning woman, enters the courtroom for sentencing. He locks eyes with the judge, each man holding his gaze and both refusing to look away—a street game played out beneath the 18-foot ceilings of this lower Manhattan courtroom.

All is quiet as Torres, 58, begins to speak of the man’s sins. “Burglary, robbery, rape and murder. That is what you were about that night. You left her body as if a werewolf had had at it,” he says angrily. “In light of the enormity of your crime, I believe it would be fitting that your lights be put out or, failing that, that you be confined to prison as long as the victim is confined to her cold grave.” For the felon before him, now staring at 25-to-life behind bars, the street game has ended.

“I have a rapid insight into crime,” Torres says later, hunched over a sandwich in the empty jury room. “I don’t live in tree-lined suburbs and haven’t been protected by money and Ivy League delusions. I have lived here, in New York City. My family walks its streets and rides its subways. So when I hear a crime described in my courtroom, flags and signals go up. I know the street where the crime occurred, the activity that’s there during the day or night. In this business it is as important to know the street as it is to know the law.”

In Torres’s case, that knowledge has shaped a tough judge with a reputation for fairness, but one with little patience for legal maneuvering and even less for repeat offenders. “He just looks you down and sends you up,” says one convict. “He’s cold as winter.” He is a “prosecutor’s dream,” testifies one Legal Aid attorney who has pled the case for hapless defendants sent to the judge’s court. “He acts like the only Puerto Rican member of the John Birch Society.”

Along with his reputation as a hard sentencer, Torres lays another claim on fame: He doesn’t just throw the book at defendants, he also writes them. Since the mid ’70s he has produced three novels—Carlito’s Way, Q & A and After Hours—all of them searing glimpses of streets filled with hard-case drug dealers, corrupt cops, loan sharks, pimps and working stiffs. His powerful back-alley dialogue echoes with the rhythms of the urban barrio where he was raised, and critics and his colleagues in the writing trade have been effusive with praise. “His books are a brass knuckle to the groin,” says novelist-screenwriter Richard Price (Sea of Love). “There isn’t a false note on any page.”

Last month, director Sidney Lumet came to New York City’s Spanish Harlem to begin filming the screen version of Q & A, Torres’s tale of a cop turned prosecutor suddenly involved in a police corruption case. Torres is an adviser on the project, and after court today he will be on the set, coaching stars Nick Nolte and Timothy Hutton on the nuances of crime and character. Later in the week, he will huddle with writer Vincent Patrick (The Pope of Greenwich Village) to discuss a new NBC series in the works for actor Alan Alda—a series loosely based on the courtroom style of Edwin Torres.

“What I do is empathize with the victim,” says the judge. “During the course of a murder trial, the victim fades into obscurity. The defendant gets the focus. The opening is there for a charming, low-key, cunning criminal who, through a nod or a daily greeting, can endear himself to a jury. The victim, however, remains an abstraction. Except to me.”

With Torres, the battle to right the wrongs he perceives often seems like a personal as well as professional crusade. “I cry at some of the things I see happen, at the violent atrocities which occur each day,” he says. “The quality of life has eroded, the process speeded by the street mugging, which, for my money, is the worst crime around. It changes the way you live. Your wife can’t visit her friends, your daughter can’t go to night school, you can’t go for a late-night walk. You must alter your life to the hours kept by a few hundred thugs. The criminals thrive in such an environment, while the innocent suffer.”

Not surprisingly, Torres’s stern sentences have won the praise of the law enforcement community. “He’s not a giveaway judge,” says retired Harlem detective Vince Hefferen, a 20-year veteran of the force. “He shows compassion for first offenders, but if they are repeaters, he goes after them.”

While exposure to crime has shaped Torres’s judicial insights, it is his wife, Vickie, a 48-year-old Manhattan grade-school teacher, who first gave impetus to his writing. The couple met after Torres spotted her picture on a beauty contest poster and sought her out; they married two years later. Then “one night in the mid ’70s, we saw an Anthony Quinn movie called Across 110th Street,” she says. “Eddie was going on and on about how silly the dialogue was, how unreal the confrontations were, how poorly the street people were portrayed. Finally, I said to him, ‘If you can do better, why don’t you?’ A few weeks later, he went into the kitchen and began to write.”

He would start at midnight, writing quickly and usually while standing, sweat and words flowing freely as the sounds of Sinatra and Danny Rivera came off the record player behind him. His first novel, Carlito’s Way, was finished in two months and lauded by the New York Times. His second book appeared a year later, in 1976, his third one year after that.

“You gotta remember something about Eddie,” says Patrick, a friend for 20 years. “He’s seen so much and remembered all of it. He’s got 30 novels in him. Maybe more. He’s lived a life that’s different from the typical guy who ends up being a judge.”

That life began in Spanish Harlem in a time when fighting street gangs battled over concrete turf. While the Turbans were considered the fiercest and the Comanches the most brutal, the judge’s gang, the Eagles, was rated the smartest. They settled their scores on the football field for money, playing winner-take-all games that often ended with the arrival of an ambulance to cart away the wounded.

“I’ve been told that our gang was the last to get out intact,” Torres says. “The others ended up stabbed, shot, behind bars or hooked on junk. We went on to school and started families. We were not the kind of gang to invade a neighborhood. But I never backed off. I once got into a tussle with a guy from the Comanches. We were going at it pretty well, until his buddy sucker-punched me, a trash-can handle wrapped around his fist. One punch was all he needed. Broke my jaw. That was the first time that happened to me. And the last.”

The drugs arrived in the late ’40s, further lowering the chances of escape. Edwin Torres, however, had a secret weapon, someone to ensure that his sights stayed set well beyond the corner candy store. The weapon was his father, Edelmiro Torres, a post-office security guard who had come north from Puerto Rico to Spanish Harlem in 1929. “I had an unusual childhood,” the judge says. “The guy living next door may have gone to prison, another may have been killed. But inside my apartment none of that mattered. My dad was a self-educated man. He read books—Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner. He commanded respect, from me as well as the neighborhood. His personality was so strong he didn’t have to be a disciplinarian. His mere presence kept me in line. I had no ambition as a young man, was lazy, directionless. I could have easily drifted toward a life of crime, but my father would never have allowed that. It was his idea that I go to law school.”

Torres attended City College of New York, leaving temporarily in his junior year to serve in the Navy during the Korean War. With his tour of duty done and his degree in hand, he went to Brooklyn Law School at night and worked as a waiter by day. He passed the state bar exam first time out, in 1957, and was soon hired by Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan to work in the country’s most prestigious homicide bureau. Torres became the first Puerto Rican assistant D.A. on Hogan’s Manhattan staff.

“In Spanish Harlem my appointment was big news,” Torres says. “Working for Hogan meant working for the best. It was invaluable experience.” He stayed three years, the Page 1 cases failing to balance the $3,500 annual take-home pay that was used to support a family that would eventually include four daughters—Melba, 34, and Karen, 30 (from an earlier marriage), and later, Valerie, 26, and Leslie, 22. In 1960 he switched to private practice and worked that end of the arena for the next 17 years. (Among his first cases was that of a killer he had once prosecuted; Torres helped win a commutation of the man’s death sentence.)

His client roster was mostly Hispanic, many from the old neighborhood, some with pasts as colorful as their nicknames—One-Eyed Spanish Raymond, Crazy Willie, Tony Gorilla. “Those guys grew up with me,” the judge says. “Who else were they going to turn to when they needed help?” He brushes aside the question of a client’s guilt or innocence: “My friend, to a defense attorney, everyone is innocent until the check bounces.” In 1977, then New York Mayor Abraham Beame appointed Torres to the Criminal Court bench. “I guess he needed a Puerto Rican judge,” Torres says with a cocked eye and full smile. Three years later he was elected to a 14-year State Supreme Court term, a job that now pays him more than $90,000 per year.

“He’s always been a larger-than-life character,” says Linda Fairstein, deputy chief of the trial division of the Manhattan D.A.’s office (and the woman who prosecuted “preppy murderer” Robert Chambers). “He’s flamboyant, outspoken, with a remarkable sense of humor. His courtroom is the best run, most efficient in the city. But beyond that, there is a love and respect for the law that is very much apparent. Ed cares about his work. He’s probably the best we have right now.”

Away from the courthouse, there is order to the judge’s home life as well. At the two-bedroom, East Side Manhattan apartment he shares with Vickie, he reads up to three books a week, favoring military history and true-crime tales. A longtime boxing fan, he exercises daily at the YMCA, spending two hours pounding the track and the heavy bag to sweat off the frustrations of the day. At night, he’s often seated before a movie screen, a trait carried over from his mother, Ramona, 75, who took her elder child to the movies three times a week. (Torres’s sister, Melba, 49, is now a probation officer in Puerto Rico.)

For a long time a more personal connection to films had seemed beyond Torres’s reach. Through the years Hollywood studios had bought short-term options to his novels a dozen times, but “I was beginning to lose hope of anything happening with them,” he says. “Then Sidney Lumet [who had met Torres when the director was doing research for Prince of the City] asked me to write an original screenplay.” Instead of a script, Torres gave Lumet a copy of Q & A earlier this year. “I read the book on a flight from New York to Los Angeles,” says Lumet. “Before the plane landed, I knew I had to make it into a movie.”

By then, 12 years had passed since Torres’s first flurry of writing, and his interest in fiction had flagged. Despite the six-figure income he made from each book, “the creative process wore me down,” he admits. And, of course, “I can’t escape from what I do. I’m always aware of the danger that exists on the streets around me. I need to get some distance away from that danger in order to write about it.”

At times his focus on life’s darker moments is so intense that Vickie has asked him not to discuss his work at home. “It’s so brutal,” she says. “And Eddie goes into such graphic detail that I just couldn’t listen to it anymore.” Torres, who likes to spend weekends visiting with his granddaughters (Alexandra, 5, Chelsea, 3, and Ashley, 7 months), constantly preaches care and safety to the members of his family. “The kids say, ‘Daddy, you’re paranoid.’ How can you not be?” he says. “I can tell you, I would put down the robes if anything of a violent nature ever happened to them. Then it would be personal.”

Now, happily, there is once again more to discuss over dinner than the cases before Torres’s court. A fourth novel is finally under way, and a screenplay Torres has written was recently optioned by MGM. This time it is a love story involving two jurors. “There’s a romantic side to me that has yet to be exploited,” he says, smiling.

Even so, would-be felons had best not relax just yet. In the morning, he will step into his 1984 Buick Regal and head downtown to court, a ride he has made five days a week for more than three decades. He has five years remaining to his Supreme Court appointment, and “my first priority is my job,” he says firmly. “I’m not going anywhere. As sure as God made little green apples, I will be behind the bench till the day I die. That should be something for the criminal element in this city to think about at night.”