It's a tidy coincidence that Jackie Lacey, newly elected as Los Angeles County's first female and first African American district attorney, is a graduate of the city's Susan Miller Dorsey High School, named for L.A.'s first female schools superintendent. Lacey was sworn in in December, and she's now ensconced in the D.A.'s offices on the criminal courthouse's 18th floor, where her picture will join those of 160 years' worth of white men who've held the title, among them Gen. George S. Patton's father. Her predecessor, Steve Cooley, stocked the bookcases with volumes by his friend, crime novelist James Ellroy. Lacey's books run to leadership, like one she's assigned to her new team, "Death by Meeting." She wears a black-and-white beaded bracelet spelling out WWJD. Tweaked a little, it's what L.A. wants to know about its new D.A.: What will Jackie do?
How did you wind up at the prosecution table?
My first job was doing civil work. I was in depositions, and I was bored to death. A friend in the city attorney's office in Santa Monica said they were hiring. They throw you right into a jury trial, and there you are, just like television — and you've got to put your case on. I thought, this is what I was born to do!
One of the defining differences of this D.A.'s office is the big celebrity cases, like O.J. Simpson.
I got to sit in on O.J. the last day of closing arguments and predicted it would be a not guilty. People who watched it on television saw a different trial. O.J. Simpson was probably the most charismatic figure I have ever been in a room with. A lot of people after a year in custody look like hell. They're pale, they age. This guy, he's tall, he's good looking, the suit is tailored. Then you had so many characters in the courtroom, so many distractions. Looking at all of this, I'd written some notes: "It's not guilty."
What's your philosophy on high-profile cases?
You follow the script. We have to follow procedures that have been tested, tried and true. [In the O.J. case,] the prosecution made some mistakes. The famous one was trying on the glove. I think the prosecutors really got caught up in the celebrity of the case. When that happens, the jury will lose focus. The model my predecessor had was the right model. I don't want to be on the 6 o'clock news every time someone gets arrested. If I feel a remark needs to be made, I'll stick to the facts. You don't beat your chest; you don't make it about you. It'll always be about the case.
What was your family like?
My folks came here from the South. My father had a high school education; eventually he went to junior college. My mother didn't graduate from high school. My father was a quiet guy but very forceful. My mother, he treated that woman like a queen. He would not allow his wife to put gas in her car. He opened doors for her. But with [his] girls, it was, "I want you to have an education because I want you to be able to take care of yourselves." So for us it was not "Are you going to college?" but "You will go to college."
My family is very religious. When we were teenagers, we could be out [late], but your butt got up at 8 o'clock Sunday morning to go to church. In that house, those things were not negotiable.
Is your dad here to see what you've achieved?
He died in 2008. When I'm at the grave site, the question that pops into my head is, God, couldn't he have been here for this? While it's important for my mother, this particular accomplishment would have been extraordinary for my father. He loved following politics. He had pictures in our dining room of Tom Bradley and Julian Bond and Kenny Hahn, Martin Luther King of course, Robert F. Kennedy, John Kennedy. So for him not to be here — I don't want to say I'm angry; I just don't understand it. But I feel my father's presence.
How did you like campaigning?
I certainly am thrilled with the result, but the campaigning was hard. I went from being at home every night reading a book while my husband watched a Lakers game to being out every night, walking into a room where I didn't know a soul and saying, "Hi, I'm Jackie Lacey." How do [candidates] get to where they can say, "Give me some of your hard-earned money"? [I said,] "Can you invest in my campaign?" That made it easier for me.
It wasn't too hard to run against Carmen [Trutanich], but I was also running against [deputy district attorneys]. I was their boss. So there's a line, right? They can throw stones but I can't throw them back.
At the end of the day our campaign team was all in agreement [to] stick with our plan of keeping this positive. Not that we didn't have any sleepless nights; not that we didn't have any bad days. Campaigning — you've got to keep going. It's the tension, it's the stress. For me it was like walking a marathon with wet clothing.
You had the endorsement of incumbent Steve Cooley. How do you make it clear you're not Cooley 2.0?
I'm a Democrat, but I'm not particularly political. Steve is a Republican, but he wasn't particularly political. [My] political bent has nothing to do with [cases]. No matter your political bent, what is the right thing to do?
What changes have you made?
The leadership changes I instituted in the first 30 days — what I desire for this office is to accomplish certain goals through the people I put in place. If you create a really good leadership model, people will naturally achieve. So the first thing I've done is change the environment by putting in people who are very well regarded, who have a sense of mission and are decent human beings. A lot of times you'll find people who are brilliant and are not nice people and you don't want to work for them. The people I've chosen, they're brilliant, and they're also people I would want to work for. The message I sent to the troops early on was that arrogance is not going to get you ahead here.
Your opponent in the runoff, veteran prosecutor Alan Jackson, has claimed that he was demoted, to the complaints division, after the election.
Where I sent him, despite what he said, is not punishment. He's an extraordinary trial lawyer, but he's not the only one. What about using those skills to train [others]? And that's the opportunity we gave him. I sincerely hope he sees it that way and uses that assignment to impart the skills he has.
California almost ended the death penalty in November. Does it serve a purpose?
Charlie Manson is a perfect example. There are some people in this world who commit some really evil acts; in my experience as a prosecutor, he deserves the death penalty. The issue is, how is it going to get carried out? The appeal process takes too long, it's expensive, so let's fix the appeal process. We can still make it fair, but it doesn't have to be as lengthy and expensive as it is.
When you see a story about wrongful [capital] convictions, you think, where in Texas or Florida did this happen, or Georgia or Alabama? Not to say that it couldn't happen here, but I think California jurors are more conscientious.
I have sat on [the D.A. death penalty] committee since 2000. The first thing we look at is, are we sure this is the right man or woman? Your defendant is mentally ill [or] has something in his background to do with developmental issues, then we're going to pay attention to that. Nowadays we're going for death in fewer and fewer cases.
Voters finally made "three strikes" more flexible. Years ago you prosecuted a troubling case of a teenager whose third strike was stealing a cellphone.
Andre Wilks. He was 19; he looked 16. This was an extraordinary case. The public defender said he should take this [plea] deal. [He] was one of these stubborn, stubborn kids. He just figured he'd roll the dice and maybe the jury would feel sorry for him. He got convicted. It was the hardest sentencing I ever went through. In terms of what he did and what his background was, it was not a life case. The inflexibility did not work, and people saw that.
Violent crime has been declining. People are now robbed by computer more than at gunpoint. How do you rework your office's priorities?
Thank God violent crime is down. But identity theft is up. I have been victimized three times. You've got to educate people about not using ATM cards to pay for lunch at a restaurant or at a gas station. I'm still mad that Bank of America didn't [prosecute my case]. What they did was just put the money back in the account. We have got to get those [thieves]. I guarantee if we pick off just 10 a year and publicize it, it'll make others think twice.
"Publicize" means you have to work with people like me.
Absolutely. I love you guys — today!
How is state prison realignment — pushing state prisoners to the local level — going?
It happened so fast and local law enforcement just wasn't ready for this shift. We have a limited amount of space and money to incarcerate people. We've run out of room at the state prisons. We have run out of room at the county jail. My office's role is to figure out alternatives for some people, such as mental health programs or drug facilities. Let's peel the lower-risk people off and save room for people who are very dangerous.
Right now, we have policies that mandate 10 days in jail, 15 days, 30 days. They're not going to be in that amount of time. And for some of these people, some of these alternatives are cheaper to do, and the recidivism rate is something like 10% to 30%. We've got to not be fearful about having these discussions.
Skid row is populated almost entirely people with mental illness or drug or drinking problems.
We put you in jail just to make sure you get your meds. That seems so cost-ineffective. My sister works for the Department of Mental Health, and she finds housing for the mentally ill and homeless. You get them a place, you get them plugged in, and it can work.
The chief justice of the state Supreme Court, the attorney general and L.A.'s D.A. are now all women of color. What does that signify?
They have earned their position. It was not handed to them. I campaigned, I fought, I scrapped to win this election. And I thoroughly expect to earn my legacy. A guy on television asked, "Do you think people are going to vote for you because you're black, you're a woman?" I said no. I'm the most qualified person. I've worked my butt off. I've worked from low-level zoning law cases to getting the first hate-crime murder conviction in L.A. County. If you didn't know what I looked like and you looked at whose resume had the most relevant experience, it would hands-down be my resume.
You can understand why women and minorities would be excited though.
Of course. A lot of times when I'm looking for someone for a new position, I see a woman's name on the list, I think, I'll check her out. It provides hope; it reaffirms that if you are qualified, what you look like does not prevent you from getting the job. And it inspires. And I'm so pleased by that because certainly I was inspired by so many people.
Cooley's public integrity division acted against civic corruption, but critics said it just went after low-hanging fruit in small towns.
The P.I.D. is very much complaint-driven, and that's where the complaints come in, from the small towns. We have the L.A. County assessor [prosecution] coming up. We have Bell. For every Dr. [Conrad] Murray, there's what Johnnie Cochran used to call the no-Js: people nobody knows about. We get a tip, we investigate.
What's the personal impact of winning the election? Are you being recognized by the public?
I'm still coming to grips with that. My security team is trying to get me used to the idea of always having somebody with me, but I'm a bit of a loner. I like walking alone around my neighborhood. I can work out almost any problem in my head [that way]. I was in Toys R Us one night before Christmas, and I thought, nobody's going to know me — and I got recognized.
You would win unanimous reelection if you promised to fix the courthouse elevators, which must be the slowest in LA. So much for speedy trials.
But I don't like to promise things that are not in my control!
We're all moving across the street to the Hall of Justice [now under restoration]; I'd say in 2014. We are promised that the elevators will work.
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times