10 Lessons From SVU That May Save Your Life

The finale of Law & Order: SVU Season 13 aired last Wednesday. As a former sex-crimes prosecutor, I’ve mocked silly episodes about amputation fetishes and sperm donor impersonators. But this season also brought great new characters, blisteringly real story lines, and impeccable timing on controversial issues. What’s most striking about this season, however, is how many lessons from the show could literally save your life. In case you missed some episodes, here are my top ten real-life lessons to take from this season of SVU.

1.  You may already be in love with your rapist.

When we think of rape, we tend to picture a stranger lurking in the bushes.  But most sexual assaults I saw as a prosecutor were committed by a man the victim knew intimately: an ex-boyfriend or stepfather; a doctor or minister; a teacher or coach; a professional colleague or the guy brought home from a bar.  SVU honed in on this theme in Season 13.  Personal Fouls featured a youth basketball coach who molested his players.  Theatre Tricks included a tech-savvy stalker who was the victim’s neighbor and friend.   The victim in Blood Brothers wouldn’t name her wealthy assailant because she hoped he would marry her.  Many of us worry about someone breaking into our homes – but what you most need to worry about is who you invite in.

2. Look out for your sons as much as your daughters.

Personal Fouls was a remarkable episode paralleling the Jerry Sandusky / Joe Paterno case.  (And it aired before the real scandal broke – I’m still wondering how the writers managed that one.) The episode highlighted sex crimes against boys.

While sexual assaults are the most under-reported crimes in America, assaults against male victims are the most under-reported of all.  It’s estimated that 1 in 4 American women and 1 in 6 American men will be the victim of a sexual assault in their lifetime.  But hardly any of the male survivors come forward, principally because of the perceived stigma attached to being a victim.  SVU’s Detective Amanda Rollins got it right when she said, “Male victims today are where female victims were 40 years ago.  It’s the dark ages.”  Kudos to SVU for getting people to talk about this subject, and helping male survivors realize they’re not alone.

3.  If you are sexually assaulted, tell the police the truth.  Immediately.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

SVU opened its season with Scorched Earth, a riff on the real Dominique-Strauss Kahn case. The episode featured a fictional hotel maid who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a powerful European politician.  When inconsistencies surfaced in her story, the case tanked.  In real life, it’s nearly impossible to prosecute a he-said/she-said sex assault when the victim has made seriously conflicting statements.  If you’re worried about telling the police something, it’s better to get it out up front.

Delays in reporting rapes are also a common challenge, as highlighted in the episode True Believers, where a college student didn’t come forward immediately, because she was in shock and had her final exams the next day.  Victims often have understandable reasons for not making an immediate report of rape, but the sooner a truthful report is made, the stronger the case.


4.  Lock your door.

Michael Moore might disagree, but the simple act of locking your door could save your life, and it’s surprisingly often

Aaron Thomas, the alleged East Coast Rapist

overlooked.  Double Strand featured a serial rapist similar to the real-life East Coast Rapist – a man charged with sexually assaulting multiple women by walking into their homes when a door or window was left open.  True Believers featured a rapist who got into a home by slipping in while a woman was bringing in her groceries.  When stranger rapes do occur, these two scenarios are often how they start.


5.  There is no florist-client privilege.

Frequent TV mentions of the attorney-client and doctor-patient privileges have made viewers believe in other privileges that don’t actually exist.  A florist in Blood Brothers argued (unsuccessfully) that his delivery of roses was confidential.  I’ve had people argue that information they told their hotel concierge, postman, or yoga instructor was privileged.  Not true.  You may have a privilege for confidences you tell your doctor, spouse, or religious leader, but in the right circumstances, even those can be circumvented.  Keep your secrets between yourself and your lawyer.

6.  Never shake a baby.

In Missing Pieces, the detectives considered Shaken-Baby Syndrome to explain the mysterious death of an infant.  As a prosecutor, I saw too many cases of babies who were killed or brain-damaged from being shaken by a frustrated parent.  If you feel like you can’t take your baby’s crying one moment longer, set him down in a crib, go to another room, and give yourself some time to recoup.  Crying can’t kill a baby – but shaking can.






7.  The police can lie to you to extract a confession.

In Home Invasion and Strange Beauty, the SVU detectives extracted confessions by lying to the suspects.  The Supreme Court has approved of police deception to get a confession.  If you’re ever interrogated by the police, you have to tell the truth – but they don’t.

8.  Use caution when mixing work with romance.

One of the more interesting continuing plot lines this season involved Detective Olivia Benson’s romance with a dashing ADA played by Harry Connick, Jr.  Interoffice romances can always be dicey, and it was heartbreaking – and realistic – to see Olivia lose her first good relationship in a long time after she and Harry crossed some ethical lines in Justice Denied.  But the worst thing about it was that Harry was in the show all season, and he didn’t sing even once.

9.  Don’t have sex with people under your supervision.

Educated Guess featured a mental-hospital guard who had sex with a patient in his ward.  Many  jurisdictions have laws making it illegal for prison guards to have sex with prisoners, teachers to have sex with their students, and mental hospital employees to have sex with patients.  Even if the prisoner, student, or patient is saying “yes,” there’s too much of a power differential.  Don’t mix it up with your clientele.

10.  One more reason not to become a prostitute.

Prostitutes are eighteen times more likely to be killed than other women.  They often don’t call the police if someone robs, assaults, or rapes them, and many have no family to look for them if they go missing.  Predators know this, and serial killers have often preyed on prostitutes.  Hunting Ground highlighted this dynamic with a harrowing mash-up of the real-life Long Island Serial Killer and the Craig’s List Killer.  My second novel, “Discretion,” is about the case of a high-end escort killed at the U.S. Capitol.

I can’t guarantee you’ll live longer if you watch SVU. But you may just learn something.  And if next season is at all like this one, we’ll all have a lot of fun.

Like the blog?  Check out my  legal thrillers LAW OF ATTRACTION and DISCRETION.
Twitter: @AllisonLeotta 



Beyond Heaving Bosoms and Throbbing Members

This weekend, I went to the Washington Romance Writers retreat for the first time. I have to admit: I was a bit nervous. What would a whole conference full of romance writers be like? Would I be required to read my sex scenes aloud? Would Fabio hit on me? I needn’t have worried.

The kickoff was an incredible Mega Book Signing featuring the legendary Nora Roberts and a dozen other romance authors at Turn the Page Books, Nora’s terrific independent bookstore in Boonsboro, Maryland. Hundreds of enthusiastic romance readers came from far and wide and bought armloads of books. It was great to meet such a devoted group of readers, and to chat with some of my favorite authors. I was lucky to sit next to Pamela PalmerChristine Trent, and #1 NYT bestseller Robyn Carr, who later gave the retreat’s keynote speech and was witty, wise and inspiring. I now have a serious girl crush on her.

Pamela Palmer, Christine Trent, me, Robyn Carr


I also learned that Nora Roberts is a bit of a baby whisperer.  Amanda Brice’s little boy fell in love…

Nora Roberts, baby whisperer


The retreat itself was fabulous – not only featuring writing classes led by bestselling authors like Elizabeth Boyle, but yoga, massage, and drunken karaoke. There was even a raucous game of Romance Jeopardy, which included categories like “Heaving Bosoms” and “Throbbing Members.”

Tim Bentler-Jungr and Kathleen Gilles Seidel


Present were 130 women and 1 man.  The single legendary Y chromosome belongs to Tim Bentler-Jungr, a most hilarious and charming gentleman, who was quite chivalrous about allowing the hordes of ladies to use the men’s room. Here he is, with acclaimed romance writer Kathleen Gilles Seidel.





And I was delighted to meet the Waterworld Mermaids, a lovely group of romance writers who keep a fun collective blog about the writing life.  (And I’m not saying that just because I won a very cool gift basket in their charity raffle.)  Check out their blog!



All in all it was an amazing weekend. I learned about the craft, made friends with some talented writers, and drank just a little too much.  I left feeling refreshed and inspired. And I didn’t even have to fend off  Fabio once.

“Law of Attraction” comes out in paperback today!

My first novel, “Law of Attraction,” comes out in paperback today!  If you like SVU, I think you’ll like my book, which covers many of the issues Mariska deals with every week.  After all the nitpicking I’ve done about SVU’s realism, I tried to keep the story as authentic as possible.  Check it out and tell me if you think I succeeded.  🙂

You can buy “Law of Attraction” at any of these outlets:

Amazon      Barnes & Noble     Books-a-Million      Indie Bound

The Backstory:

As a prosecutor of sex crimes and domestic violence in D.C., I saw heartbreaking tragedies, acts of shocking evil, and vulnerable victims every day— but also moments of real heroism, true love, and healing.  Given the stories I witnessed, the rich cast of characters I worked with, and my lifelong love of fiction, I had to write a book.

In Anna Curtis, I wanted to create a character who people would relate to and root for, and a story that would both entertain and teach about the way the criminal justice system works—and doesn’t work.  My day job and my writing were mutually beneficial: my work gave me interesting material, while writing my fictional characters made me understand my real-life witnesses more deeply.

I focused on a nightmare shared by domestic-violence prosecutors: losing a case and setting free an abuser who eventually kills his victim.  I wanted to explore the reasons why so many women go back to boyfriends who hurt them.  And I wanted to create a strong, smart female prosecutor who would be particularly empathetic to her witnesses because she shared some of their experiences – but whose romantic life would suffer from those same experiences.

For the sake of my wonderful mom and dad, I need to stress that Anna is not me and her family is not my family.  Similarly, all events in this book are fictional, and any resemblance between my legs and the legs on the cover is purely coincidental.

Law of Attraction was written in the spaces of my life between prosecuting and mommying.  I started writing the book while I was pregnant with my first son.  Back then, I would wake up at 5:00 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before heading to work.  I wrote at night and on weekends.  I carried a laptop everywhere and wrote wherever I could find a horizontal surface (and preferably a latte).  After my son was born, I wrote during his naps and after bedtime.  Now, the sound of a softly snoring baby triggers a Pavlovian response in me to start typing.

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is a notoriously tough day for domestic violence —  which is why I started my novel, “Law of Attraction,” there. Check out this excerpt if you’d like a glimpse of Valentine’s Day in D.C. Superior Court. I hope your own Valentine’s Day is much better!


The courthouse coffee was terrible, but the morning after Valentine’s Day was no time for a domestic violence prosecutor to go uncaffeinated. Anna poured the inky brew into a Styrofoam cup, took a sip, and grimaced. Scalding and bitter—a fitting start to a day of sorting through last night’s crimes. At least she’d have help. Anna pulled out her cell phone and called her officemate.

“DV Papering,” Grace answered in crisp singsong.

“Hey, I’m in the cafeteria. Want some coffee?”

“That’d be fabulous.” Grace hushed her voice. “And grab a bunch of napkins. There’s a woman bleeding all over your chair.”

Grace had been a prosecutor for four months, but Anna was still new enough that the information jolted her. “Should we call an ambulance?”

“She’s okay. A lot of scrapes and bruises, and a very messy nosebleed. Nothing life-threatening. I can cover till you get here. And can you snag me a muffin? I’m starving.”

“Sure. Be right there.”

Marveling at Grace’s calm, Anna grabbed a muffin and got in line to pay. Three people stood in front of her: a tall guy in a dark suit, a man wearing a Redskins jersey over a blue collared shirt, and a buxom woman in fishnet stockings and a spandex miniskirt. Lawyer, Anna guessed of the first man. Then a policeman, hiding his uniform so courthouse visitors wouldn’t ask him questions. And a prostitute, just getting off work, here to see her probation officer. The one thing Anna liked about the courthouse’s grim basement cafeteria was its democracy. The cop might arrest the prostitute later tonight, and the lawyer might skewer the cop during cross-examination, but everyone had to wait in the same line to get their corned-beef hash.

After paying, Anna hurried to the napkin dispenser, but the tall lawyer who’d been ahead of her took the last ones.

She looked at him in dismay. “Actually, I really need those,” she said, nodding at the napkins in his hand.

Something about the man’s dark hair and lanky figure seemed familiar, but out of place. His tailored suit and buttery leather briefcase were common in the federal court next door, but marked him as several income brackets above the D.C. Superior Court crowd. He probably worked for some big Washington law firm, in one of the high-paying jobs she’d turned down to work for the government.

The man glanced down at her and suddenly grinned. “Anna Curtis! Hey! It’s been a while.”

“Hi, um . . .” She shook her head.

“Nick Wagner. Harvard Law School. I had a ridiculous beard? And hair down to here.” He tapped his shoulder and blushed slightly. “Your team beat mine in the final round of Ames Moot Court. Kicked our asses, in fact.”

“Nick! You used to play guitar in the Hark during Friday happy hour.”

“You got it.” His smile widened. “I guess you made more of an impression on me than I made on you.”

“Sorry—I’m just in a rush, and focused on those napkins.”

Nick placed them ceremoniously in her palm. “Some kind of food spill emergency?”

“Thank you. Bloody nose. Abuse victim in the Papering Room. So—I’ve got to go.” Anna began to walk out of the cafeteria, looking over her shoulder with regret. “I’m sorry I can’t really talk now.”

Nick hurried along with her through the labyrinth of the courthouse basement. “So, you’re a prosecutor—and you pulled papering duty on the day after Valentine’s Day? What’d you do, run over the U.S. Attorney’s dog?”

She had to laugh. Papering was the most despised assignment in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a task only the greenest prosecutors could be compelled to do. Anna would turn arrests from the last twenty-four hours into criminal case files: typing information into a computer, two-hole-punching police paperwork, condensing lifetimes of violence into slim manila folders. The tedium was broken only when a victim came to tell her sad story in person. And Valentine’s Day was notoriously the worst time for domestic violence. People were two-timing each other, or paying too much attention to their baby’s mother and not enough to their wife, or just plain forgetting a card. It was surprising how often a lovers’ quarrel turned into a trip to lockup.

“I just started in January,” Anna explained, “so I’m still in the hazing period.”

“Well, we should catch up sometime.”

“Sure,” she said as they rounded a corner. A crowd of police officers lined the hallway outside the Papering Room. She’d never seen so many blue uniforms in one place before. It was going to be a long day.

“How about dinner tonight?” Nick asked.

“I don’t know.” Anna glanced sideways at him without slowing her pace. Despite the poor timing, it was a tempting offer. She’d been feeling homesick and disconnected in her new city. It’d be nice to talk with a law school acquaintance. She stopped in the doorway to the Papering Room and handed him her business card. “Call me. Let’s see how things look later.”

“I will.”

He smiled at her: a warm, radiant smile. Despite herself, she felt a natural pull toward him. This might not turn out to be such a bad day-after-Valentine’s Day after all.

That thought died as she walked into the Papering Room.

A tiny woman sat at one of the two sagging desks, flanked by Grace and a uniformed policeman. Blood had soaked the woman’s white button-down shirt and spattered the gray linoleum at her feet. A few dark red drops flecked the bottom of the mint green cinder block walls. Her beautiful brown face was marred by two black eyes so swollen they were nearly shut. Raw red abrasions covered her left cheek in a messy cross-hatch pattern. She held a piece of bloodstained office paper to her nose and rocked herself back and forth, moaning softly.

Although Anna had read a lot of police reports describing gruesome injuries lately, she hadn’t seen a woman this badly scraped up since her childhood. A wave of memories, guilt, and anger stunned her into a momentary paralysis. But today was her day to pick up cases, so this victim was her responsibility. Clenching her teeth, she strode over to the woman and held out a couple of napkins. “Here,” she said gently. “Try these.”

The woman swapped them for the paper at her nose.

“My name is Anna Curtis. I’m an AUSA, an Assistant U.S. Attorney. I’ll be handling your case.”

“Laprea Johnson,” the woman said. Her voice was so soft it was barely audible.

Suddenly Laprea gasped. The pain on her face transformed into a puckered mask of rage. At first, Anna wondered what she’d said to infuriate the woman.

But she was glaring past Anna—at Nick, who stood frozen in the doorway. His face had turned an ashy white. The wounded woman spat her words at him.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Law of Attraction” is available on Amazon and everywhere books are sold. Click here to check out the reviews. All views on this website are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the view of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Detroit Free Press calls Law of Attraction “a winning legal thriller”

I grew up in Michigan, where reading the Free Press is a daily ritual.  So I’m very excited to be featured there today!  The headline is “D.C. Prosecutor Writes Winning Legal Thriller.”  It’s a funny piece that talks about my job as a prosecutor and what it was like to have my bosses review the “steamy sex scenes” in my novel.  Check out the full article here.

"D.C. Prosecutor Writes Winning Legal Thriller" -- Detroit Free Press, January 23, 2011

“Law of Attraction” was featured in The Washington Post!

The Washington Post featured my novel, “Law of Attraction,” and called it a “racy” legal thriller “tackling a still-taboo subject.” (The Post also called me “lanky,” but we won’t get into that.)  

The article starts: “The worst part of writing her chick-lit legal thriller, Allison Leotta says, was the day she had to show her boss the sex scenes.”   Check out the full article by clicking here.

"D.C. Sex Crime Prosecutor Draws on Job to Pen Thriller" -- The Washington Post, 12/10/10