The Ferguson, Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson was an uncommon one—legal analysts have noted that most district attorneys can “indict a ham sandwich” if they so desire.
The phrase comes from Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. In 1985 he argued in an interview with the New York Daily News that grand juries should be eliminated from most felony cases:
Wachtler, who became the state’s top judge earlier this month, said district attorneys now have so much influence on grand juries that “by and large” they could get them to “indict a ham sandwich.”
The “ham sandwich” line was later immortalized when author Tom Wolfe quoted the judge in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wachtler, who is Jewish, subsequently told the blogger Barry Popik “that he regrets that he didn’t say ‘pastrami’ sandwich.”
“Ham sandwich” has become shorthand for district attorneys who abuse their prosecutorial discretion—either by pushing through weak cases, or, as critics have alleged in the Ferguson case, by derailing cases that they don’t want to prosecute for personal reasons.
In any case, the charismatic Wachtler would soon find out just what it felt like to be indicted. He was a big deal in the early 1990s New York political scene, and was viewed as a possible Republican challenger to governor Mario Cuomo. But in 1992 it all came crashing down in a truly bizarre fashion.
As detailed in a lengthy New York Magazine feature, Wachtler began anonymously harassing a Republican fundraiser named Joy Silverman, with whom he once had an affair. (Wachtler was married; Silverman ended the relationship.) In truly icky fashion, he sent an obscene greeting card with a condom inside to Silverman’s daughter. He also delivered threatening notes to her apartment while dressed like a cowboy, and later he called Silverman’s apartment phone—which was then being monitored by the FBI—threatening to kidnap her daughter.
In the end, Wachtler was arrested on charges of extortion, racketeering, and blackmail, and forced to resign from the bench. He ultimately served 15 months in prison.