Tuesday, February 1, 2011

True Crime Tuesday: Allison Leotta Answers Your Questions

ROBERTA: Last fall, we were pleased to introduce Allison Leotta and her debut novel, LAW OF ATTRACTION. Allison kindly agreed to revisit JRW, this time to answer questions from the perspective of her work as a federal prosecutor specializing in sex crimes, domestic violence, and crimes against children.

Allison has also been blogging about what Law & Order: SVU gets right and wrong, evaluating each episode from her perspective as a real sex-crimes prosecutor. She says it has been much more fun, and gotten much better feedback, than perpetually shaking her fist at the TV. (Doesn't this sound like Hank's lovely husband Jonathan?)

So she's happy to talk about what TV crimes shows get right and wrong. She can answer broad questions about domestic violence, sex crimes, and crimes against children, and talk about the criminal justice process generally. She's also willing to discuss how she manages to balance mommying with prosecuting and writing.

(She can't comment on any real pending cases or give legal advice. And keep in mind that everything she says is in her personal capacity, not as a representative of the Department of Justice.)

HALLIE: Seems like every time I watch one of those crime investigation

shows, it turns out that the teenaged daughter did it, and it always

feels like the least-likely-suspect solution. How common is it in real

life that a young girl is the murderer?

ALLISON: So true! It seems that on TV, the murderer always turns out to be a buxom 19-year-old heiress. In real life, only 10% of homicides are committed by women. I dislike movies like "Fatal Attraction," where a crazed woman stalks a mild-mannered guy. In reality, it's so much more likely to be the other way around. In "Law of Attraction," I tried to paint a realistic portrait of a woman who is a long-time victim of an abusive boyfriend.

ROBERTA: I need help with a lawyer character. My protagonist's father

has hired a defense attorney for her--long distance on the

recommendation of a friend. Now she's hearing rumors that her new

lawyer may have something sleazy in his background. So I'm wondering

if you could think of a thing or two that a lawyer might have

done--and gotten away with--that would fit this bill.

ALLISON: Ooh, sleaziness! The challenge will be keeping this answer short. Let's see, he could try to bribe a witness, judge, or juror. He could coach his clients on how to lie; he could direct his clients to destroy evidence; he could manufacture evidence himself. He could take possession of a gun he knows his client used to commit a murder, and get rid of it. He could take clients' money but not work on their case. In defending a rape case, he could use his subpoena power to get the health records of the rape victim, then intimidate her into not testifying ("If you testify, I'll tell the world that you have herpes, and that you had an abortion when you were 17.") He could obtain the address of a witness and give it to his gangster client, knowing the gangster will use it to kill the witness. On a subtler level, he could go to a witness's home himself to show "we know where you live."

ROBERTA: Fabulous, Allison, thank you! Enough ideas there for the entire series! Okay how about you guys, questions for Allison?


  1. Allison, one of the things that seems the least realistic in tv shows is the way the prosecutors can focus on the featured case to the exclusion of everything. When I (briefly) practiced in an entirely different field of law, I had a caseload that never fell below 40-50 open cases.

    What's a more realistic view of the prosecutorial caseload? And how do you allocate your time between cases?

  2. Great point. The caseloads vary from very heavy to crushing. When I was a newbie, prosecuting misdemeanors (the lowest-level crimes), I had a caseload of around 150 cases. Now that I handle the most serious sex-crimes, my caseload is more like 20-30 cases at any given time. Most prosecutors work very long hours -- and still never have as much time as they'd like to work on any one case. That said, as an author, I can understand why TV shows focus on one case per episode. If you showed all the different cases that one prosecutor would be juggling on a given day, it would make for a chaotic, dizzying, impossible-to-follow episode.

  3. Allison
    Could you comment on legality of tapping into email without a warrant. In this case a laptop which might a difference if it is not in home or office of suspect. If a warrant is required, how much probable cause would be necessary? Thank you so much.


  4. First of all, I'm very excited to find Allison's blog about Law & Order SVU critique. How fun! A little secret is that my home is being extensively renovated right now as we prepare to sell it and build a new one. My reading concentration is absolutely nil. It's driving me crazy. Anyway, I have been using my reading time to watch Law & Order SVU streaming from Netflix. I'm up to Season 7 right now. It's been very interesting. I told the guys working on the house that they have to finish before I get caught up to the current season. LOL

    I have Allison's book, but it is packed away right now. I will put it to the top of the list when I get to unpack my books. In the meantime, I can continue with L&O SVU. Loved the cartoon!

  5. My novel has to do with the Russian Mafia attempting to take over the Boston Celtics by manipulating a stockholder's meeting.
    My question is if I can use the name of the Boston Celtics since they are a public domain?
    Thank you.
    Mike Draper

  6. Good question, complicated answer. If a police officer wants to look at documents inside someone’s personal computer, she needs to get a search warrant. She’d have to go to a judge and prove that she has probable cause (that is, a reasonable belief) that a crime has occurred. But if that police officer wants to get a wiretap for an email account – that is, she wants read emails as they are sent in and out, in real time, she would need to get what’s known as a “T-3,” an order under Title III of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The standards for that are much more onerous – the police officer must show that the email account is being used for an illegal purpose *and* there’s no other way she can get the information in the emails. There’s a special office in the Department of Justice that has to approve every federal prosecutor’s request for a T-3. The standards are quite strict. But all of that can change if the computer is a company computer rather than a personal computer. Let’s say your character is an evil genius who works for Jungle Red Widgets, Inc., and every time this evil genius logs in, she has to click a button saying she understands that Jungle Red Widgets, Inc. can read her emails. Ms. Evil Genius has no expectation of privacy – and that changes everything. The police officer could get Ms. Genius’s emails by going through her company, without having to get either a warrant or a T-3. Of course, if the Ms. Genius was so darn smart, she’d probably use her personal computer to do her dastardly deeds.

  7. Thanks, Kay! I hope you like "Law of Attraction." Meanwhile, best of luck with your home renovations! I hope SVU and Netflix can help keep you sane during the noise and dust!

    Mike, I'd be more worried about using the name of the Russian Mafia. :) I can't give legal advice, but I think the Boston Celtics would contest the idea that their name is in the public domain. If you started a youth basketball league called the Boston Celtics and took them on tour, you'd probably get a nasty letter from somebody's lawyer. I expect that their name is trademarked. But your question is can you write a fictional piece about a real team? And the answer is: I'm not sure. Unfortunately, this isn't my area of expertise. I know that you can't defame people, even in fiction (if you have a fictional blond basketball player who everyone knows is really supposed to be Larry Bird, and that character is running numbers games, Larry can sue you for defamation in fiction). Beyond that, I'm sorry to say, I'm not sure. But if any of those fictional basketball players commit a sex crime, I'll be on the case!

  8. Allison, I was watching a Dateline NBC the other night, about scamming elderly people and I wondered--do you think real criminals are difference from us? Can one be born withut a conscience? Can they be born evil?

  9. Wow, sounds like a question for a great novel to hash out, yes? I think evil comes in infinite shapes and sizes. Some criminals are simply greedy and don’t care about their victims. Some are just bad at controlling the impulses that most of us keep in check. Many of my defendants – the guys committing the most serious sex crimes in D.C. – had pretty nightmarish childhoods themselves. Evil breeds evil.

  10. Allison, thanks so much for lending us your expertise today! Now we're all going to take your good ideas and furiously write...

  11. Thanks for having me! You guys are such a great group of writers. I'm honored to be blogging in your company.

  12. Great Q&A -- thanks, Allison.

    And Mike, I'm with Allison on that one. Best to make up a team of your own.