Undisciplined But Obsessive

Los Angeles Magazine has a long article about John Lewin, “the cold case ace,” a prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.  He is “the prosecutor who’s taking on Robert Durst,” according to a blurb on the cover.  The article is worth reading for the tidbits it reveals about Lewin’s work ethic, and for the vaguely embarrassing photographs of Lewin himself.

I want to believe that hard-working prosecutors are successful prosecutors.  I don’t like the idea that showboating courtroom performers, rigid moral absolutists, or TV news anchor types make good prosecutors.  So I read this article with a clear eye towards what Lewin’s habits are so that I could emulate them.

Lewin does not seem like a prosecutor with a ferocious iron will that could work day and night without rest or relief.  On a purely superficial level, he is overweight, which heavily implies that he doesn’t work hard in the gym or control himself at dinner.  LA Magazine heavily implies that his office is a wreck, another bad sign.  Lewin did not seem to have an exemplary work ethic in law school.  He graduated in the bottom 20% of his class and rarely attended lectures.

On the other hand, his record as a prosecutor in Los Angeles is exemplary, the kind of record that only hard work can get you.  Lewin found himself drawn to unsolved cases early in his career in Torrance.  He would work these cases up in his spare time.  Meanwhile he rose steadily through the ranks of his office, and since 2002, Lewin has won 16 guilty verdicts or pleas.  In that time period, he has never hung a case and never had a jury return a verdict of “not guilty.”  It is fair to say that cold cases are more difficult than hot (?) cases.  Lewin’s streak, then, is pretty impressive.  It’s also worth pointing out that he tried 16 cases to verdict or plea in 14 years.  At just over one per year.  Based on my limited experience, this is an extremely slow rate, although I’m sure its due to the extensive investigation that Lewin does.

Lewin starts out modestly, saying, “I’m an undisciplined person, but I’m an extremely obsessive person.”  I wish he had explained this distinction a little bit better.  Is he saying that he can’t focus on things that he is bored by, but that his obsession means he is never bored with his cold cases?  Or is he using “obsessed” in the same way that other people would use “motivated”?  Despite this belief that he is undisciplined, the article mentions that Lewin works “seven days a week.”  One of his court partners commented, “he has a plan.  Every day is an effort to achieve that plan, and it’s somewhat disguised by his eccentricity.”

The article details Lewin’s approach to case work.  He “might review suspect statements as many as 200 times, seeking inconsistencies and slips of the tongue.”  Together with law enforcement, he would sometimes interview 50 witnesses to verify one detail for a trial.

Although there are plenty of good case stories, the article’s description of Lewin as a prosecutor ends there.  I have heard that his experience working with law enforcement and his ability to unearth new facts about a case are what has made him a success in his office.  And other than “obsession,” I’d love some more details about what drives him.

The Los Angeles Magazine article, despite its funny illustrations, is an inspiration to work harder on my own case preparation.  I often interview a victim only days before trial, due to time limitations and the way in which cases are assigned.  I could go to the scene of these crimes, but I rarely do.  And I certainly could (and should) work closer with my investigating officers on case preparation.

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