Edwin Torres, the New York State Supreme Court justice whose crime novels became the film Carlito's Way, says they don't make criminals like they used to. And he should know: He came from the same hardscrabble Harlem streets as some of the cons he tries. ''There are no more rulesthat's the theme of Carlito's Way,'' says Torres. ''No moral standards. I've talked with guys I knew, knock-around guys who have done time for homicide, and they're shocked and outraged at some of the things that happen today.''
The appalling cases he seesparents who murder their kids for the insurance, kids who kill tourists to raise cash to go dancingprovide the factual bedrock of his grisly fiction: ''Everything I've written is something that's happened.'' Not that his ex-con hero Carlito is precisely him. ''Would I be on the Supreme Court bench if it was me? The biographical aspects are the misadventures on the streets, the beatings. I'm 63 years old. The last 35 years I've been in the criminal-justice system. It's a school second to none.''
His education on both sides of the law enabled him to create such plausible good-bad guys as Sean Penn's corrupt attorney David Kleinfeld. ''I've met 'em by the score. Three lawyers I knew personally have been murdered in situations not dissimilar to Kleinfeld's.'' To help Penn learn lawyer-speak, Torres brought mobster John Gotti's lawyer Al Krieger to the set. ''I had him sit with Sean to talk about his early years, which parallel in large measure the rise of Kleinfeld. The negative aspects of Kleinfeld aren't Al. God forbid you should think that!'' As for the Al in the film, Pacino knew about Carlito's ways before almost anyone in America did. ''We used to work out together at the YMCA,'' Torres reminisces. ''I showed him the books in galleys. It was just predestined (that Pacino would play Carlito).''
Yet Torres hasn't lost his ties to the old hood. ''Guys that have done heavy time send me their kids for recommendations for schools, for jobs. I call it the Pat O'Brien-James Cagney syndrome.'' He alludes to 1938's Angels With Dirty Faces, in which the actors play tough kids, one of whom becomes a priest, the other a gangster. ''Two guys from the same place, one goes good, the other goes to the electric chair. Except with me, it was about 50 other guys.''