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Puerto Rico Profile: Judge Edwin Torres

December 1, 2000
Copyright © 2000 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Edwin Torres leads a double life. By day, he walks the halls of justice dispensing law and order. By night, he explores the seedy, crime-ridden city streets of drug dealers, gangsters, and crooked cops.

Yet while he has spent decades mixing the annals of law with the world of crime, Torres has not been the object of censure or criminal prosecution. Rather, he has won praise, because Torres, who for 20 years has served as a justice on the New York State Supreme Court, is also a popular and critically applauded writer of crime fiction.

Edwin Torres was born in New York City in 1931. His parents both came from Puerto Rico, and the family lived in the Puerto Rican enclave called El Barrio in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem. Torres recalls that as a boy, he would go to the Fox Star movie theater on 107th Street and Lexington Avenue. For a dime, he could see a movie, but the real highlight would be the newsreel footage of Joe DiMaggio playing for the Yankees. "He was the closest thing to an icon at that time," Torres says in a PBS documentary on DiMaggio’s life. "He was just the man."

Despite growing up in poverty, Edwin Torres received a first-rate public education. He attended Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s premier public secondary schools. Next he studied at City College of the City University of New York, followed by the Brooklyn College School of Law. He was admitted to the New York State Bar Association in 1958.

Torres has had a distinguished career in the law, and he has developed a reputation for being especially tough on some of the city’s worst criminals. In 1977, he was appointed to the New York State Criminal Court. Three years later, he was elected to the State Supreme Court, where he is a justice representing the Twelfth Judicial District. In New York City, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over felony cases, and Judge Torres has presided over a number of high profile murder cases.

In 1991, for instance, Torres was the judge in the trial for the murder of a tourist on a New York subway platform. He also presided over a recent case involving a Mafia-related slaying outside a Manhattan nightclub. In another case, he sentenced to a prison term of 50 to 100 years a man who had perpetrated a string of horrid sexual crimes while on parole. "A collective pox on the parole board that ever sees fit to unleash this demon on society," Torres said at the sentencing.

Torres is unapologetic about the harshness of some of his sentences. "A society that loses its sense of outrage," he has said, "is doomed to extinction."

A judge who deals every day with miscreants and outlaws might be expected to retreat from that world when he doffs his judicial robes. For Judge Torres, however, the end of a day in court is only the beginning of his night job as a writer of hard-boiled crime fiction.

Well before the success and fame of lawyers-turned-novelists like John Grisham and Scott Turow, Edwin Torres was combining his legal knowledge with an understanding of the streets of New York to produce gripping works of fiction.

Carlito’s Way (1975) and its sequel, After Hours, follow the exploits of Carlito Brigante, a fictional Puerto Rican drug kingpin and hustler who goes to prison and then struggles to go straight after his release. Another novel, Q & A (1977), portrays the investigation of a decorated New York police Lieutenant suspected of corruption.

Torres’ books explore what one critic has called "the darkest and seamiest sides of law." They deal not only with deeds of gangsters and drug dealers but also, as in Q & A, with the insidious presence of racism and prejudice in the criminal justice system.

Several of Torres’ novels have been adapted into screenplays for major Hollywood films. The movie version of Q & A was released in 1990, starring Nick Nolte and Armand Assante. The books Carlito’s Way and After Hours both inspired the 1992 motion picture Carlito’s Way, which starred Al Pacino. Directed by Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), Carlito’s Way has become a favorite among fans of gangland thrillers.

The film versions of both Carlito’s Way and Q & A have received praise for appealing to mainstream audiences while retaining the voice of the books’ Puerto Rican author. One critic wrote that the movies "open the possibility of a useful hybridity, a space where the Puerto Rican elements of a production need not be subsumed to other interests." In other words, while Puerto Ricans are often portayed stereotypically in Hollywood films (West Side Story is a frequently-cited example), Carlito’s Way and Q &A have a deeper feel for their Puerto Rican characters that comes directly from the novels of Edwin Torres.

Judge Torres continues to excel at his two careers, presiding over headline-grabbing murder trials by day and writing Hollywood-bound fiction by night. Perhaps one day he will write a book that tells his own story, the tale of a kid from El Barrio who grew up to be a judge and an author, committed to keeping the criminals and lowlifes of New York off the streets and safely between the covers of his novels.

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