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The judges' judge Sheila A. DiTullio, the new supervising judge for criminal matters in the Eighth District, builds her career and her life on the three R's of respect, responsibility and doing the right thing. And then there are the rivers ...

It wasn't a typical day -- not even for someone whose job offers an open window onto the ebb and flow of human behavior.

On a weekday morning earlier this month, Judge Sheila A. DiTullio sat inside a downtown courtroom, facing a crowd of more than 50 people -- and speaking to one.

"You're a thug, and you're a murderer," she said.

"You take a life, and you get life."

That was DiTullio, judging. Sending one man, Riccardo McCray, to a lifetime behind bars.

The next day, the judge went fly-fishing.

Those who know her best know that after especially difficult days, the Erie County Court judge can be found hip-deep in one of Western New York's streams, fishing for hours on end.

No cell phone, no texting, no media. Just her and nature -- and peace.

"It's funny how God works," DiTullio reflected, afterward. "I had a banner day. Twenty-five trout, all gorgeous, many of them huge. It was like 'A River Runs Through It.' "

It was a much-needed break.

For the McCray sentencing, relatives and friends of the eight victims of the City Grill shooting had filed into DiTullio's courtroom with hearts full of anguish. The mood was tense.

DiTullio first spoke words of comfort to the grieving. Then she handed down a sentence -- the toughest possible -- of life in prison without parole for the 24-year-old McCray for killing four young people and wounding four others outside the Main Street restaurant last August.

The emotional moment served as something of a conclusion for the bloodiest crime in Buffalo's recent history. For the victims' families, it provided a measure of consolation.

For the steely-nerved DiTullio -- whose position of regional leadership makes her one of Western New York's most powerful jurists -- it was a draining, and fulfilling, day on the job.

"You have to absorb all this pain, and then you have to impose a sentence," said DiTullio. "[The McCray sentencing] was such an emotional day."

Which is why she decided to spend the next day at the river.

> View from the bench

DiTullio handles a criminal caseload as one of five Erie County Court justices -- the only woman currently in that position. She was elected to the court in 1995, and is now in a second term. She also serves as an acting Supreme Court justice in the Eighth Judicial District.

In January, DiTullio was named to a new position, as supervising judge for criminal matters in the Eighth District.

The role, widely acknowledged as one of authority and influence in Western New York, means DiTullio oversees all criminal cases -- thousands of them each year, involving hundreds of judges -- in the six-county area around Buffalo.

It's a demanding job, physically -- the woman has five workdays a week, same as the rest of us -- and mentally, since DiTullio must shoulder the burden of making sure that all criminal courts in the region are fair, efficient, respectful halls of justice.

"It's a lot of responsibility," said one prominent attorney in Western New York, who asked not to be named because of his professional relationship with the judge. "You're supervising all the criminal judges -- when there's a question, they come to you. Everything is on your watch."

DiTullio, who turns 56 next week, is the first woman to hold the position. She is proud of that fact.

"Criminal justice historically is viewed more as a man's world," she said. "This sends a message to other young women lawyers: There is a place at the table. You do have a place at that table."

On the state level, where DiTullio was named to the post by three of New York's top justice officials, including Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau, the appointment was called fitting -- and significant.

"Having someone like Judge DiTullio, who is so experienced in this area, and who is so confident as a trial judge -- she does it with such ease -- is really a good thing for the court system," said Pfau, in a phone interview with The News from New York City.

"She's someone who really knows and respects the law and other judges -- and that really makes a difference."

> Staying in control

That word, "respect," is one DiTullio uses over and over when she talks about her 15 years on the bench.

She prides herself on showing respect to all who enter her courtroom, from the prosecutors, victims and their families to the defense attorneys and defendants, even those charged with heinous crimes.

In return, DiTullio -- a petite woman whose athletic frame doesn't tower over anybody, despite her history as a college basketball coach -- demands respect back: for her decisions, and for the public office she occupies. She is aware of her position in the public eye.

"The public follows criminal court cases. They expect a lot out of our judges, and they should," said the judge, clad in a pale-pink suit, over coffee at Spot on Delaware Avenue on a recent weekday afternoon. "They watch us; and they watch our cases."

DiTullio's reputation for respect and fairness runs deep in local legal circles, including among lawyers who have not always waged successful cases in her court -- or who don't see eye-to-eye with her about every matter.

Paul J. Cambria Jr., a dean among local defense attorneys, said that even though he isn't a fan of DiTullio's occasional admission of cameras into her courtroom -- "I just don't think it works," he said -- the judge has built a track record as a bastion of common sense and intellectual clarity in the region.

"Sheila knows the law, she knows the procedure, she knows the cases," Cambria said, from the Los Angeles office of his firm Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria. "Not all judges fall into that category. She knows what she's doing. One thing about Sheila is, she is always courteous and prepared. She has a personality; but she is always no-nonsense."

DiTullio said that she feels it's especially important to stay in control of cases in highly charged criminal venues.

"A criminal courtroom is a stressful enough place to begin with," she said. "Once a trial gets out of hand, it becomes a circus. I think I am admired for that: I keep it in control, but in a civilized way."

> Zen and the art of fly-fishing

DiTullio learned about respect -- and hard work -- from her father, Alfred DiTullio.

Alfred DiTullio immigrated to the United States from Italy when not yet in his teens. He settled in the Buffalo area and worked at a steel plant and as a barber before serving in World War II. When he came home, he opened his own business, a beauty supply outfit.

"He always told the story about the trip from Italy to America," said Sheila DiTullio. "He knew that America was the land of dreams."

Alfred and his wife, Marion, raised five children in Lockport. Sheila, the middle child, has two brothers, David and Al, and two sisters, Maria and Sharon. All attended Lockport city schools. Their Italian heritage came with sauce each Sunday and Catholic faith, which Sheila has retained and nurtured in her adult life.

"I consider myself spiritual. And close to God, obviously," the judge said. She feels luckier than most when she considers her childhood. "I loved it; loved it."

Best of all were the times when Alfred DiTullio would sneak away from his business for a few hours, taking Sheila with him, to a local stream where the two would bait their hooks and sit waiting for the fish to bite. In those moments, Sheila learned patience and good humor -- and about trusting her gut, and loving nature.

"We didn't catch much," Sheila DiTullio recalled. "But we had fun. We'd fish anywhere, in any puddle."

Those childhood moments are why today, happiness for the judge is a remote stream, a fly rod, a pair of waders. She has traveled as far as Montana and British Columbia to fly-fish.

One local legal professional, who asked not to be named, said that he went fishing once with DiTullio and found himself hopelessly entangled in his equipment among some rocks and branches. The judge hurried over and within a few minutes had freed him like an expert scout.

"She could be a wilderness guide," he said admiringly.

"There's a lot of room outside," DiTullio said. "You can breathe out there."

Alfred DiTullio died in 1988. Today, the business he founded -- A&A Beauty Supply -- is going strong, based in Lockport with six other locations. Marion DiTullio, 84, who continues to run the business with her sons, said she also sees her husband's legacy carried on in the work of his middle daughter.

"She cares so much about law, and fairness, and honesty. And people being treated equal -- that's very important to Sheila," said Marion DiTullio. "My kids, when they went to school, if there was an underdog being mistreated, they would do something, say something. They wouldn't stand for it."'

> Starting out

DiTullio attended Houghton College, a small Christian college about an hour from Buffalo near Letchworth State Park, where professors encouraged her to attend law school. She graduated from the Western New England College School of Law in 1980.

Then -- though she had "no connections" whatsoever -- DiTullio landed a job in the Erie County District Attorney's Office. She remembers taking the bus to her interview with District Attorney Edward Cosgrove, and the new suit she bought for the interview because she didn't own one.

"For some reason, they were kind," she said, laughing ruefully.

In the DA's office, DiTullio, who has lived in North Buffalo for 30 years, distinguished herself by her work ethic and her sense of fair play.

"She has a wonderful sense of her responsibilities. She is concerned about everybody -- and that's sort of unusual in this day and age," said Cosgrove, the former district attorney, who practices law in Buffalo.

Cosgrove said he knew DiTullio was going to go far in law soon after he hired her as a freshly minted graduate.

"I hired probably 300 lawyers in the time I was DA, and I never hired them because of their political connections," said Cosgrove. "I was looking for intelligent, well-rounded young people. Sheila was one of the special ones."

DiTullio, who is unmarried, spent most of her 15-year career as a lawyer in the DA's office, with the exception of a two-year stint in which she practiced environmental law in the state Attorney General's Office. As a prosecutor, she headed the Grand Jury Bureau and was one of the initiators of a unit in the office to handle sexual abuse, assault and rape cases.

"Sex crime is not the same as regular crime," said DiTullio, who noted that the Erie County unit became a model for others. "Once you treated victims of sex crimes compassionately when those cases went to trial, those victims could communicate. The conviction rate on those cases skyrocketed. I'm very proud of that."

> 'A low point'

Of course, no professional career is without its criticisms. DiTullio has been buffeted by those over the years, as well.

She prosecuted Anthony Capozzi as the Delaware Park rapist in the mid-1980s, after several victims identified him as their attacker. Capozzi was later exonerated through DNA evidence.

And she took heat in some quarters in 1997 when, after 19-year-old Jonathan Parker shot and killed Buffalo police officer Charles E. McDougald, it became known that DiTullio had freed Parker on bail for gun-related charges shortly before the shooting. Critics said DiTullio shouldn't have let Parker out; others rose to her defense, saying there was no way she could have known he would commit worse crime.

"That was not her fault," said Cosgrove. "Sheila was doing the work of the courtroom."

DiTullio acknowledged that her work as a judge has given her sleepless nights, even when she knows in her heart she acted correctly according to the knowledge she had at the time.

"That was a low point, but also a learning period. Up until that point I had never really been slammed for anything," she said, of the Parker case. "It was pretty tough. I felt horrible a person had been killed because of my decision -- but I learned from it."

In the Capozzi case, the lawyer who defended Capozzi -- and who still represents him -- said DiTullio had done nothing but an impeccable job with that case, based on the information she had at the time.

"She did what she was supposed to do," said Thomas D'Agostino. "She's fair and she's good; she's a good judge."

> A benchmark case

In the McCray case, DiTullio said she once again felt pressure to do the right thing -- for the victims, for their families, and for the larger community of Western New York.

"City Grill was a heart-wrenching case," she said. "You had all these families, all these people getting up and testifying. There were so many people killed -- in 17 seconds. That's what makes this case landmark. You won't see this again. It was too important for the community -- too many lives were lost, and it was senseless."

DiTullio looks back on her work with the City Grill trial as a benchmark in her career -- and a sign, in her own mind, that all those lessons about character and courage and respect, absorbed at her father's side, were not in vain.

"As a judge, you have to have a tremendous amount of compassion," she said. "On the other hand, if there's a [guilty] verdict?

"You have to have the guts to sentence."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com