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.