When he was a bookish teenager, Frank A. Sedita III did not intend to be a lawyer. He saw himself pursuing a doctorate in history and then a career in teaching.
Even today, he will fill your ear about the great leaps in technology, culture and literacy sweeping the world in the late 19th century and how those advances slowed dramatically because of the two world wars.
But when you are named for a grandfather who was a lawyer and later a three-term mayor of Buffalo, and a father who became a State Supreme Court justice, you can expect a nudge or three toward a legal career rather than one in academia. Especially when you are an only child.
"And," the namesake said, "my dad said he would help me out with tuition."
Frank A. Sedita III is now the Democratic candidate for Erie County district attorney, a job that mixes law and politics, as his father and grandfather did.
"I am not exactly sure when he decided to go to law school," said Joseph V. Sedita, a lawyer who remembers that his much younger second cousin kindled their friendship when he was about 18 and later took an apartment in his sprawling home.
"I remember him leaving open the possibility that he was going to pursue an academic career. We had just bought the big house on Penhurst. And there we would talk about the law. And it became apparent to me, at least, that he was getting kind of interested."
People who knew him at the time recall him as typical. Friendly but not too friendly. A girlfriend. Later a broken heart. An emerging mustache. He was so typical that unless you knew his famous forebears, he didn't seem like the one who might occupy one of the county's most important offices.
>Victims, families first
But residing behind that sometimes sullen manner and the crown of wavy dark hair was unusual drive and curiosity.
"I had no idea of the significance of his name in politics or local history," said Guyora Binder, who was a new professor at the University at Buffalo Law School when Sedita took one of his classes. "I just could tell that he had very high expectations of himself. I knew he was going to go far and serve the public as a lawyer and public servant."
Said Binder: "As a student, what really impressed me about him was his passionate curiosity and dedication in studying law. He would really think hard and agonize about the problems we discussed in class. If something bothered him he would come find me afterward to talk about it. He was just incredibly persistent in developing arguments to defend a position and yet very open-minded."
Sedita had graduated magna cum laude from Canisius College and later married another Canisius grad, chemist Leslie Elizabeth Loriche, whom he met after they had graduated. They have a son and live in Buffalo's Parkside neighborhood. He cooks the meals. A novelist who met him for a book about one of Erie County's notorious trials says his chicken marsala is special.
Sedita, 48, says his family keeps him grounded. "My wife will say I have two personalities," he said -- the on-trial personality and the other one. The way he sees his mission, it's to bring justice for the victim and the victim's family.
Unlike defendants, they could not shop around for a lawyer to represent them.
"You have a moral obligation to use every ounce of your intellect, every minute of your time, to bring justice for that family," Sedita said. "They didn't choose you. You have to give them the best legal representation that they can get."
District Attorney Frank J. Clark didn't hire him. Sedita joined the office in 1988 under interim DA and future state judge Kevin M. Dillon as he went into his first election campaign. (Dillon's opponent, future federal judge William M. Skretny, saw the Sedita name and called him a political hire.) Clark has been Sedita's boss for years, because when he wasn't district attorney, he was Dillon's top assistant.
"I have seen him grow from a City Court assistant 20 years ago to the chief of our Homicide Bureau, where, gosh, our conviction record is unparalleled," Clark said recently. "I think he has grown and matured as a lawyer and as a person. I think he is well schooled in what it takes to run an office as large and complex as this."
Clark, who had dismally low approval ratings and was battling a difficult medical condition, opted to retire and endorsed Sedita as his successor -- both a blessing and a curse for the deputy DA's candidacy. As Clark's favorite, staff members were free to donate to the Sedita campaign, and they have given tens of thousands of dollars.
>Dislikes political aspect
But Sedita also has distanced himself from Clark because of the DA's poor image with police and the public after it was revealed that Erie County had sent two people to prison for crimes they did not commit, Lynn M. DeJac and Anthony J. Capozzi.
Sedita, like his Republican opponent, Diane M. LaVallee, says he dislikes the business of politics: raising money, implementing strategy, spending nights away from home to make speeches and seek endorsements. When they ran into each other one night when both were seeking the endorsement of the Good Government Club, they chatted cordially, but foremost in Sedita's mind was the fact he had been missing his son's athletic events.
Sedita knew that his opponents would go after his association with Clark. It had been predicted by his political advisers, who include former County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, who takes candidates he likes under his wing regardless of whom the party favors.
Pigeon has been a friend to the Sedita campaign by helping him lock up the Conservative Party endorsement, which then was leveraged to get Sedita the Democratic endorsement before the primary. Pigeon also was able to deliver campaign cash from his deep-pocketed friends, who include Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano. And Pigeon brought in other hired hands to help the campaign.
Now Pigeon is a campaign issue. County Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr, a Republican, suspects he and Golisano have violated contribution limits and should be investigated. Sedita says there would be no need for him to step aside and appoint a special prosecutor, as LaVallee says he should, if he wins and inherits an investigation. "Every time some political operative or political partisan makes an allegation, it doesn't trigger a special prosecutor," Sedita said.
Sedita's opponents, LaVallee and Democrat Kenneth F. Case before he withdrew and endorsed Sedita, said that the DeJac and Capozzi cases drained public faith in the county's criminal-justice system and that it can't be restored by continuing what would amount to a Clark regime.
But was Sedita to blame?
Even though he's now the top homicide prosecutor, Sedita was not involved in the Capozzi case. He disagrees with some of Clark's conclusions in the DeJac case and went on to convict Dennis P. Donohue, the suspect in her daughter's death, for another murder. And Sedita moved to release DeJac from prison when it was clear she did not kill her 13-year-old daughter, Crystallynn Girard.
"When he's presented with incontrovertible evidence as to someone's innocence, he doesn't try to cover it up," said Steven M. Cohen, a lawyer for DeJac. "The thing I like about Frank Sedita is he's really interested in pursuing justice. He wants to put criminals in jail and keep innocent people from being in jail. Some prosecutors are interested in their own win-loss record. Frank Sedita looks past that."
>Intends to be hands-on
Sedita feeds off the prosecution of the big cases. He doesn't want to let that go. Unlike LaVallee, he wants to remain in the courtroom, even as district attorney. He intends to personally handle at least one case a year.
"I want to set a tone and set an example," Sedita said. "I want everyone from the youngest assistant to the most grizzled veteran to know that I am willing to take an oar."
Clark doesn't see it as possible. The job of district attorney requires too much, he says.
"In a job like this, it's easy to make pronouncements if you have never sat in this seat," he said. "I would say that it was 12 to 18 months before I felt comfortable making all the decisions you have to make in this job. Even with all the experience that I had, it was at least a 12-month learning curve."
Sedita says that he respects Clark but that he differs from him in many ways.
"Frank has a gift and an immediate facility for language and expression," Sedita said. "He's a classics major. He seems to have this tremendous vocabulary and tremendous command of idiom at his fingertips. I tend to be more deliberate, a little more reserved. We are a different generation. . . . He is a supremely confident man. And it's not that I have a lack of confidence. It's just that I tend to be a little bit more deliberate."
Sedita never lost the itch to teach. He teaches at the UB Law School, and he often asks younger prosecutors to take the second chair for him during murder trials, to give them a chance to learn. By doing so, he has established a reservoir of good will with many prosecutors in the office, Joseph Sedita said.
The candidate saw it displayed during a recent campaign fundraiser at Cole's on Elmwood Avenue.
A casualty of the Sedita campaign was the mustache the candidate had worn for decades. Some 30 years in the making, it went down the sink to give Sedita a different image, which he's willing to laugh about.
Sedita walked into the fundraiser and saw virtually everyone sporting hair under their noses, most of them fakes purchased for the occasion.
"I walked in the joint," he said, "and I was the only one without a mustache."