Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fallen judge speaks

Fallen judge speaks at Sage College

By: Robert Cristo, The Record


Wachtler, 77, who served 13 months in federal prison in 1993 on harassment charges, makes no bones about how his successful career came crashing down like a ton of bricks the day FBI agents hauled him away in handcuffs for stalking and harassing his former mistress and her then 14-year-old daughter.

Instead of blaming his crimes on being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Wachtler faults his own political ambitions and narcissism for acts that caused him to resign from the bar and never again be allowed to practice law.

"This was my own ego, ambitions, narcissism ... I was responsible and I paid a price," said Wachtler. "I was aware of what was going on, but I played mind games with myself and I thought I was being very clever."

On Tuesday, Wachtler spoke to a packed crowd inside Sage College's Bush Memorial Hall on mental illness, recovery and redemption.

The event, sponsored by Unity House, served as a perfect setting for Wachtler to tell his story considering many of the people in the audience struggle with mental issues similar to his.

"My whole purpose here is to say if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone," said Wachtler, who before his problems was being touted as the next governor of New York. "We have to get mental illness out of the closet and get rid of the stigma - that stigma kept me from seeking help. So, the message is there shouldn't be shame in mental illness and getting treatment for it," he added.

During his address, Wachtler recounted painful memories in prison when he was placed in solitary confinement for 40 days for his own safety after he was stabbed by another inmate.

He was shackled from head-to-toe, placed in a small cell and fed a potato based bread meal every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Wachtler contends such deplorable treatment only forced him further into a mental malaise.

Even the one hour a day he got for exercise was a nightmare.

"They put you in this birdcage where the other prisoners can see you and they torture you saying 'look at the nut,"' said Wachtler, who is calling on the state to ban some of the treatment he and many others have endured.

"So that's the wonderful hour you get ... if you're not mentally ill before, you will be after you get out," he added.

Wachtler recounts these horrible memories not to get the audience feeling sorry for him, but to drive home the point that he was actually one of the lucky ones considering his wealth, privilege and abundance of family support around him.

"I'm not telling you this for pity," said Wachtler. "I'm out, but think of the person who doesn't have family, friends, money - they will end up back in prison."

Before Wachtler's plunge into bipolar madness, he made many notable accomplishments on the bench, which include playing a key role in making rape in the context of a marriage a criminal offense.

He also led the charge that led to broadening of protections for disabled and racial minorities.

Wachtler was also quite famous for such repeated phrases as: "Prosecutors have so much control over grand juries they could convince them to indict a ham sandwich," a phrase that is still used in by attorneys, both real and the ones who play them on TV.

These days, Wachtler is urging legislators to create a mental health ward in Queens, which would have housing, medical evaluation and court system for the mentally ill all on the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center site.

Those who attended the event, who suffer from mental illnesses and wished to remain anonymous, called Wachtler's story an inspiration and felt they could have no better or more powerful voice to speak on their behalf.