By April Christin • March 15, 2010•Writers in Residence
I had a chance to interview Jackie Sunday afternoon sitting across the table in her kitchen banging away on my laptop and hoping the tape recorder captured everything she said because it was very informative. I hope you enjoy the interview. May the prosecution call its witness!
What is your educational and legal background?
I went to Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, so I am a Los Angeles native. I went to undergraduate at U.C. Irvine and majored in psychology, and I earned my J.D. from USC law school. I decided to apply to law school in my junior year when I took a class called the Introduction to the Study of Law. The class had guest speakers and one of the speakers was a young African-American lawyer named Irma Brown, who is now a judge. Listening to her speak about how exciting it was being in a courtroom was a major reason why I decided to apply to law school.
What was it about the excitement that made you think about becoming a lawyer?
Irma expressed such enthusiasm in the way she talked about her courtroom victories. It is hard for me to explain, but looking at her, at how young she was, maybe five or six years older than me, I thought if she could be successful at being a lawyer, then so could I. I listened to her talk about the thrill and excitement of being in the courtroom, and actually sat in a courtroom in Santa Ana and observed cases as part of the course. I remember thinking I felt very comfortable in a courtroom, very at home there, and was interested in everything that went on. It was almost like watching a theater, if you will. Each person who addressed the judge changed the atmosphere in the courtroom. And I thought, this is something I can be good at.
What led you to want to become a prosecutor?
I would love to say it was some big calling, but I ended up in the DA’s office really just following a friend. When I first started out as a lawyer, I was a little disillusioned because I wasn’t in court. I was working for a lawyer who did contracts for athletes. I did not particularly like that because it meant being in the office all day reading agreements. I read contracts and sat in on a couple of depositions, and I was very bored. I knew that the very thing that led me to apply to law school was the electricity in the courtroom, the connection to the courtroom, and that was missing. I needed to find a job where I would be in the courtroom on a daily basis. I then applied to work at the City Attorney’s Office for the City of Santa Monica, and worked there for about a year and a half. I had a friend at the office who left and went to the DA’s office. She told me the work at the DA’s office was more challenging and she thought I would like it. So I applied, and I have been with the DA’ office for 24 years.Being a prosecutor appealed to me not only because of the chance to do trial work, which I really wanted to do, but also because it gave me the opportunity to help victims get justice. I noticed many of the victims of violent crimes were people of color and people of a lower socially economic who did not have a lot of money. As a prosecutor, I have the opportunity and the privilege of fighting for them, and there is such a high in being able to do that, it is hard to describe. The opportunity to use my advocacy skills and speak for someone who is unable to speak for themselves was a major draw for me in being a prosecutor, and the reason I have stayed.
What are your day to day responsibilities as an Assistant District Attorney (ADA)?
Solving problems is a major part of my job as an ADA. When issues arise in different courthouses and different offices, I am responsible for reaching a decision and developing a solution. I am also responsible for advising and supervising four directors, who determine staffing levels, and I consult with them on staffing. I sit on the executive staff, which advises the District Attorney of matters of office policy. I also serve on several committees in the office, such as the committee that reviews every case eligible for the death penalty and makes the recommendation of whether the District Attorney should seek the death penalty in a particular case. As part of the executive staff, I receive briefings on high profile cases and may make recommendations to the District Attorney about what charges to file and how the office should handle the case. I sit on the committee that determines who should be promoted within the office. And I hold training meetings with mid-level managers during which I disseminate information, talk with them about issues they are facing, and try to come up with universal solutions to some of those issues.
Who has influenced your legal career the most?
A prosecutor named John Asari was probably one of my first mentors in the DA’s office. John taught me that a prosecutor’s job is not always to seek the maximum sentence in a case, but to evaluate a case. So often young prosecutors believe their job and mission is to argue for the maximum penalty, but John taught me how to evaluate a case in determining the most appropriate resolution. He would frequently include me in meeting with witnesses when deciding what offer to make on a case, and would walk me through the process evaluating a case. For instance, he would show me why the case is weak or strong, and why we need to adjust the offer. He also taught me that cases brought in by law enforcement that cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt should be rejected. He taught me how to do that and why it was important to do that. John was also an extraordinarily civil attorney. He was very polite in speaking to defense attorneys. He never cursed, was never rude, and was always professional. To this day, I still hear his voice when I am trying to decide what to do about a case.
What types of cases did you prosecute as a deputy district attorney? Do you miss prosecuting cases now that you are in an administrative managerial role?
As a deputy DA, I prosecuted everything from the lowest level drug offense all the way up to murder cases, and everything in between. I can say with almost every trial I had, I learned something. Obviously I learned more from the murder cases because there was more at stake, and they were also more stressful. I remember almost every murder case I have prosecuted. Each case has a different fact pattern, and those were the cases I lived with the most.
My job is now mainly administrative. I make decisions and recommendations about what should happen in some of the more serious cases, but I do not prosecute cases anymore and I miss that. I don’t miss rounding up witnesses and the stress of preparing for trial, but I do miss having my witnesses in place, walking down the hallway from my office to the courtroom, rolling my box of case materials with my detective at my side, going into the courtroom, passing the jurors, and getting ready to do battle in trial. When I walked into a courtroom for trial, I felt like there was gladiator music playing...lol...I do miss that.
What was your most interesting trial?
My most interesting trial was a hate-crime murder case that I tried in1998, in which three individuals who called themselves “skin heads” were convicted of murdering an African American man. I found the case interesting because I was surprised at the facts. The defendants, who claimed to be white supremacists, were not Caucasian. They were part Hispanic. There was also a female defendant who was part native American. What was surprising was their beliefs given their ancestry and their relatively young ages. The callousness of the crime was also surprising because they picked out an African American homeless man and beat him to death with a tire iron and some other object, and they did that to earn the right to get a motorcycle gang tattoo on their biceps. It was also the most interesting case because I had a chance to work with FBI agents who had a lot more intelligence about the gang than you would expect to see in an average murder case. Because the victim was homeless, no one showed up in court on his behalf so it was just me, a law clerk, and law enforcement on the victim’s side, and the defendants on their families on the other side. The trial was in front of Judge Ito, who presided over the O.J. Simpson trial, and the trial was covered by LA Times. Even the jurors thought it was an interesting case.
Speaking of the media, how do you handle the media in trying high profile cases?
In prosecuting a case that is getting a lot of media attention, I focus on giving them what I can give them that is allowed by law. I think it is a mistake for a prosecutor to let their personality become the story. A prosecutor’s personality should always be secondary, and the story should always be about the case. Prosecutors should stick with facts that are in the public record, and not allow themselves to be baited into giving their personal opinion. It is also not a good idea for prosecutors to relax around reporters and have casual “off-the-record” conversations because there is really nothing that is off the record. I also think where prosecutors go wrong in dealing with the media, is when they do things differently for a case that is getting media attention, than they would for one that isn’t. A prosecutor should not conduct matters differently on a case simply because there are cameras. A prosecutor does a better job in looking at what they would ordinarily do on a case, and then treating the case exactly the same.
What was your most challenging trial?
My most challenging trial was a death penalty case where the defendant, Richard Browne, was charged with murdering two men in two different robberies, and also with a string of robberies and assaults where no one was killed. The two men Browne killed were both family men who had wives and small children. One of the murders was captured on video tape. Their wives were frequently in court, and I had many dealings with them. Though the case was tried in 1995, I still occasionally hear from them.
The case was personally challenging because many people think they can find the words to say, “put someone to death,” but it is not easy to do. I normally write out phrases or an outline for my closing argument. But I was stuck when it came to writing my closing for Richard Browne because his father had been in prison, and he did not have a good childhood. I am a religious person and I think all life is sacred, so I personally had to overcome some hesitation in my own mind about who I am to ask for someone else’s death. I finally reconciled it with the fact that the defendant committed the crimes, and wrecked the lives of two families. I also reconciled it with the fact that he murdered those men in a brutal and callous manner. At the end of the day, while it was my decision to argue for death, him being put to death was really in the hands of the jurors. In my argument, we went through the factors, the fact that there were more aggravating factors than mitigating factors, the fact that death was warranted, and the jury would be justified in putting him to death, and left it in their hands. The jury came back in less than a day with a death verdict, so obviously they felt there was enough evidence to put him to death.
That case was professionally challenging because of the stress and the amount of work involved in trying a multi-count murder case, and the personal toll it can take in dealing with the families of the victims. You spend your time talking with the detectives about getting evidence together for the penalty phase because we knew we were going to the penalty phrase. You have to spend time settling your witnesses, establishing a rapport with them, and getting them ready to take the stand. Then you have to deal with the victim families who are essentially going through the grieving process all over again, and they want a piece of your time. And you really don’t have it because you could be spending time researching the law or drafting motions. But in this case, I really felt compelled to make sure they had their time with me. As trial progressed they wanted to sit down at the end of the day and ask questions - why did this happen, why didn’t you object to this, or what’s going to happen next. What they really wanted to know was if we were winning or losing. Also, when a witness has a meltdown on the stand, you have to stop and calm that witness down. So during the trial, my days were stretched beyond belief in terms of working on the case and keeping the families informed. They don’t teach you that in law school. They don’t teach that you are going to have issues with your witnesses and you may have to be “Dr. Phil” on the spot.
Since a large part of being a prosecutor is public speaking, do you get stage fright? If so, how do you overcome it?
Practice, practice, practice. I do get stage fright, so I make outlines. I am getting better. I am comfortable talking to twelve jurors, but I do get nervous if there is more than 20 people in a room, especially lawyers, so I keep thrusting myself into situations to see if I can get through it.
What do you enjoy most about being a prosecutor?
I enjoyed being able to get justice for others. I like receiving thank you cards from people who, in their opinion, don’t think they are important enough to the justice system. I save all that stuff and I think it is most rewarding. I love working with my peers and I love it when they think I’m a good team player and a good lawyer. I have been lucky enough to be blessed with some outstanding peers in the DA’s office who are lifelong friends, and who have been helpful and supportive to me in my professional development. At the end of the day, if my peers think I am a good prosecutor, and my victims and law enforcement forks are satisfied that I represented the case well, then I’m good with that.
What do you like most about being an administrator?
I struggled the first year because I was not mentally prepared and did not know what I was doing, but I learned a lot. I learned that being a good leader will make or break an organization, and that was what I had to be - a good leader. As a result, I spent an incredible amount of time reading books on how to be a good leader and manager. I am convinced having good leaders in a prosecutor’s office is crucial to our success and integrity. When we fall down it is because we did not have good leaders, and we did not set the right tone or enforce the right policies. I have made it my mission to help other managers see how important it is to be a good leader. I have bought books and forwarded them to people. I have sent people to seminars, and led discussions in the office about the topic of good leaders. And when a leader tells me they are better because of that book I sent, or they are better because of what I said to them, or they are learning from me, I hear orchestras playing in my ears because that is the legacy I want to leave. I want to leave people who care enough about the mission and who care enough about the office that they will raise their game to a higher level to be better managers, supervisors, leaders, or mentors. To the degree that has happened recently, those are my best times.
How do you balance the demands of your job with your personal and family life?
You have to set rules for yourself. The “Jackie Lacey” rule is pretty much every evening at around 6:15 p.m., I am walking thought that door to have dinner with my husband and my kids when they were at home. Pretty much on the weekend if my husband and children have something that is important to them, I am there. I think it is harder to keep that balance when you are an administrator because being an administrator really means you are on call 24-7, you have to set rules for yourself and you have to obey those rules. Certainly those rules get adjusted if there is a crisis at the office. I do take calls at home around the clock and I carry blackberry, but the blackberry is turned off when I am in church on Sunday morning. I also try to impart to my staff that being a prosecutor is an important job, but it is not as if you are the only cardiac surgeon available to save somebody’s life. You do not need to be available around the clock. If you are doing it right, you are empowering others and you are developing others to take your place so you are not the only one who can solve that problem, and you are not the only one who has that knowledge. I also think you have to make it your goal to lead a balanced life, and you have to decide there is going to be more than just the office for you. For me, it has always been that way. I love my office, but when I am in Kauai on the beach, I am really not thinking about my office . . . lol. So you set rules, you set boundaries, that is another way of putting it. Your family has to take a front seat over your business and professional life. I think that is one of the great things about being a prosecutor, we allow that balance. A lot of places in private industry do not. That was also what drew me to the prosecutor’s office.
In what ways does being a public servant influence or impact your private life?
Being a prosecutor impacts what you can and cannot do in your professional and personal life. If a prosecutor is arrested, say for driving under the influence or being drunk in public, one of my responsibilities as a manager is to review the police report, and decide what to do. Normally they would get a suspension, but if the crime involves moral turpitude they would lose their job. Also, as a prosecutor it behooves me to always obey the law in all aspects of my life. Since I took an oath to uphold the law, I need to obey the law myself. So you definitely have to adjust your lifestyle as a prosecutor. There are things I will not do, and things I will not allow to be done in my house. For instance, if a contractor says I don’t need a permit to get work done on my house, guess what, I’m getting a permit because it is my job to uphold the law. So being a prosecutor defines one’s morals, and has defined mine.
Being a prosecutor can often be stressful, how do you keep your own personal balance as a woman?
I try very hard to take good care of myself and find that walking helps. I also think a Burke Williams getaway should be covered by health insurance . . . lol . . . it can restore you. My faith also helps. I try to surround myself with people who are good for me, and who are in my corner. Anyone with negative vibes I figure out how to get them out of my life. I laugh a lot. It is not uncommon for people to burst into my staff meetings because we laugh a lot. Humor is a good way to cope with stress. Though our jobs are very serious, there is humor in the irony and sometimes in the behavior we see in the courtroom. So all of those things help.
What advice would you give a young female lawyer and/or law school student who might be thinking about pursuing a career as a prosecutor?
Research what the job is about, and volunteer at a local prosecutor’s office. There is nothing worse than committing to a job, and then finding out it is not right for you. You aren’t going to do well, and the office is not going to be well-served. The second thing is to start protecting your brand now. To me your “brand” is what people think of you after your name is announced, and what they say about you. Do they say that person is a hard worker? Do they say that person takes shortcuts? Do they say that person is difficult to deal with? Do they say that person is a team player? Do they say that person seems to have their act together, or do they say that person seems to have a lot of drama? For women in particular, people are not so forgiving of many lapses in judgment. Women need to have their personal lives under control and maintained. You should not let people in the office have access to what is going on in your personal life. Some things you may need to reveal, for instance, if you are sick and need time off. But I don’t think it is particularly helpful for women to allow people to have access to your dating habits and your dating life. While people may overlook the fact that a man has had a lot of partners in the office, when a woman is perceived as someone who has had a lot of relationships in the office, that perception seems to discredit her a bit. I am not sure why, but it seems to be the rule. You do not want your personal life to come into a promotional discussion. You want people to focus on your work, and view you in a professional sense. Lastly, be careful about what you do in law school. It is amazing how stuff in law school can follow you into your job. People remember you and with social networking sites, you never know who is getting access to information about you. So I recommend starting in law school protecting your brand and your reputation.When I thought about who I wanted to interview for this series on women prosecutors, I immediately thought of Jackie Lacey. She came to mind not only because she is an accomplished and influential woman prosecutor, but because the woman sitting across the kitchen table whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for the past few years was also a warm, caring, and spiritually-centered person. Jackie Lacey embodies the professional and personal attributes any female lawyer would wish to achieve, and it was truly a joy interviewing her. The prosecution rests.