Insight Goes a Long Way : Blind D. A. Turns Handicap Into an Advantage in Courtroom
As the judge called the attorneys up to the bench, Deputy Dist. Atty. Philip Wojdak sprang up from his chair and swiftly maneuvered his way around a table. For most trial attorneys, walking to the bench is a familiar and simple thing, but for Wojdak, who is blind, it is just one of many tough routines he has had to master.
Wearing a three-piece navy blue suit and a pair of iguana-skin cowboy boots, Wojdak, who started working at Downey Municipal Court in early June, moves about the courtroom with the help of a cane.
“I am under a lot of pressure to do the little things well,” Wojdak said in his small, nearly empty office near the Downey courthouse. “Like being able to walk up to the judge’s bench, and doing it well so it looks like I have control of the courtroom. Not stumbling is important.”
Whereas other attorneys can look at the jury to study their responses throughout a trial, Wojdak relies on an assistant to describe the jury’s facial expressions.
Sensitive to Voice Tone
“With witnesses it isn’t too hard because I can tell where they are coming from by their voice tone and by their interaction with other people,” Wojdak said. “I can tell when they are mumbling or looking down at their shoes. But with jurors it’s a little harder because they are just sitting there quietly.”
Wojdak uses a Braille typewriter to type notes on his cases and keeps up with court rulings by listening to tapes prepared and distributed by the district attorney’s office in Alameda County, but he relies on his assistant to read legal documents and help him walk the two blocks from his office to court.
Wojdak is one of about 50 blind attorneys in California, according to Manuel Urena, program manager for Services for the Blind in the Department of Rehabilitation in Sacramento.
Wojdak, 28, lost his sight at age 16 for reasons doctors still don’t understand, but the thought of dropping out of high school as a sophomore never occurred to him. In fact, he said, he wasted no time in learning Braille so he could complete his courses and graduate with his classmates.
Grade Point Goes Up
He started out his sophomore year with a 2.5-grade-point average, but, he says, he had a lot of time to devote to his classes, and by his senior year he was getting all A’s.
From there he went to college and was graduated from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in 1984. After passing the bar exam he became a deputy district attorney in Huntington Park in March, 1985.
Wojdak says he tries a variety of cases in Downey, including assault and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In his self-effacing manner, Wojdak shrugged off his accomplishments with a joke.
“I knew I had to go to college if I didn’t want to be selling pencils on the corner for the rest of my life,” he said with a grin.
But the joshing ended when a colleague walked in to ask about his day in court.
“How did it go, Phil?” she asked.
“Hung jury, 8 to 4 for acquittal,” he replied somberly. “You win some, you lose some I guess.”
Being sightless has not prevented Wojdak from employing a few aggressive courtroom tactics, and he acknowledges that being blind sometimes has its advantages.
Simulated Peril of Shovel
“In Huntington Park I was trying to show the jury what a dangerous weapon a shovel can be, so, every chance I got, I would swing that shovel around and hit the ground with it ‘boom-boom,’ ” he said as he stood up and banged the tip of his cane on the floor. He said he was told “the judge was looking at me like, ‘Maybe we should take that thing away from him,’ and the bailiff was just standing out of the way.”
Former colleagues and judges in Huntington Park say that Wojdak’s reluctance to negotiate for more lenient sentences has earned him the reputation of being a hard-nosed lawyer.
“He was very determined to prove he could do his job, and I guess that has to be admired,” said Commissioner William J. Kent. “But he is very hard-nosed.”
Head Deputy Dist. Atty. John Kildebeck described Wojdak as an easy-going person with a good sense of humor, but said that he is extremely dedicated to his job.
“He has accomplished things that most people with his handicap would have long since given up on,” Kildebeck said. “The same sort of qualities that made him surmount the odds carried over into other endeavors too.”
Opponents Get Upset
But Huntington Park Municipal Judge Porter (Duke) de Dubovay who has handled several of Wojdak’s cases, says he has seen defense lawyers get upset with the district attorney’s attitude on several occasions.
“Unfortunately, he has a manner that alienates quite a few defense attorneys,” said De Dubovay. “I don’t know if he was trying to overcompensate for his handicap or he was just being hard-nosed, but in my career as a judge I have never seen a D.A. alienate so many people.”
Wojdak, who says he is used to being analyzed by skeptical judges and attorneys who underestimate his abilities, takes the criticism in stride.
“I’m sorry he feels that way. I don’t think I alienate people, but I don’t want to give away cases,” Wojdak said.
“If I do something badly they attribute it to my blindness. If I do something well they attribute it to my having to try extra hard to overcome my blindness,” he said. “Everything is relative to my not being able to see.”
When the fast-paced life of a trial lawyer gets too hectic, Wojdak says, he likes to listen to avant-garde music or retreat to the mountains and go cross-country and downhill skiing.
‘You Learn to Eat Snow’
“You learn to eat snow,” he said with a laugh, when asked how he manages the athletic feat, then explained that someone skis behind him, verbally guiding him down the run.
But lately he and his wife, Nancy, a civil lawyer in Los Angeles, spend their free time with their 14-month-old daughter, Shauna, whose picture sits on a shelf behind his desk.
Wojdak says he has “no major plans” for the future but to stay in Downey and practice what he loves to do best.
“I want to learn to be a real good trial lawyer and that takes a lot of time. That could be a lifetime ambition in itself,” he said. “But I can’t think of a job in law that could be more fun than being a D.A.”