Lessons from a Sex-Crimes Prosecutor — by Heide Herrmann

My friend, Heide Herrmann, is a sex-crimes prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (the same job I held before becoming an author).  She has handled some of the office’s most high-profile sex-crime cases, but is known for bringing incredible diligence, compassion, and good judgement to every case that crosses her desk. Heide is leaving the USAO to work for DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch.  Her recent Facebook post about the lessons she learned from the job really resonated with me.  In a few lines, she captured a lot of what the job is about.  Her post is reprinted below. Good luck with the new job, Heide, and thanks for making the city a better place: one day  and one person, at a time. – Allison

As I embark upon my last week as an Assistant United States Attorney, below is a list, in no particular order, of a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the last six years or so. Some more trite than others.

1.  You gotta fake it ’til you make it.

2.  Everything about being a prosecutor is scary as hell. And it’s how I now know how brave I am capable of being.

3.  When a person tells you that you can’t possibly understand how she feels, she’s right. But you should still try.

4.  I can’t fix all of the problems for all of the people I meet. But every day, there is at least one thing I can do to make one person’s life a little easier, safer or better.

5.  No means no. Unconscious means no. So drunk that she can’t walk or talk means no. If that seems obvious to you, good. Teach it to your sons anyway, because apparently it’s not obvious to everyone.

6.  If a car runs you down in the middle of a crosswalk, it’s the driver’s fault, not yours. But you still look both ways before crossing. Young women — please think about how much you drink, and whether you’ll still be safe if you have another, and another, and another. If a man assaults you it’s his fault, not yours, but I’d rather you never find yourself in that situation.

7.  Hug your children. Tell them how important they are. Talk to them, listen to them, love them, protect and appreciate them. If you already do that, good. Do it more. You’d be surprised how many children have no one who gives them the most basic care and kindness. I don’t want to tell you more, because then it’ll hurt you, the way it hurts me.

8.  There is no group of people more concerned about doing justice, protecting the vulnerable, and maintaining the highest level of ethical and professional standards than the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. I will always be proud to have practiced alongside these heroic prosecutors, and to have served the citizens of the District of Columbia.

A Dream Visit to SVU –by Elexa Nosonchuk

SVU is on a hiatus this week, but this story will make you love the show even more.  This guest post is by Elexa Nosonchuk, one of the biggest SVU fans on the planet.  She visited the set last year via the Dream Foundation.  Here is her inspiring story.  Thanks for sharing this with us, Elexa!  You made me laugh, cry, and … breathe.

elexa mariska breathe pic

 

I have a progressive lung disease that will eventually kill me. The only things that have kept me alive for the last 2 years are experimental treatments, including chemotherapy and steroids. They each have their own side effects which wreak havoc on my body. One of the few things left in my life that I’m able to enjoy is television, and my favorite show is Law & Order: SVU!! I love the show and the inspiring, encouraging message it gives. SVU reruns are constantly on TV and I never get tired of watching them! A few years back, when asked to figure out what one thing I would like as a life wish, it was an easy answer, and thanks to the amazing people at The Dream Foundation (an organization that gives dreams to adults with life threatening illnesses) I was given the opportunity to visit New York so I could go to the filming of the 300th episode of SVU and meet Mariska Hargitay and the cast! Mariska, the driving force behind the show’s message – that sexual assault and domestic violence are never ok – is the show’s star, and my favorite TV actress! When I asked to meet her, I thought I might get to say hi to her for a few minutes and experiencing the city would be the biggest part of my trip, but the people at Dream Foundation and SVU made it so much more!

It started with a private tour of the set at Chelsea Pier. The entire way into the building I was freaking out; I even took a picture of the floor of the elevator. I was able to see each part of the set and got to sit in the judge’s seat in the courtroom. I sat in the interrogation room and watched segments of the episode film. I had multiple moments where I freaked out because I was so excited about everything I was seeing! Every time I passed by one of the actors on set they would stop and take a picture with me and talk to me! Everyone was so extraordinarily nice!! I must have been beet red the entire visit. One of my favorite parts of the visit was meeting the puppies – the actors bring their dogs to work – and I am definitely a dog person!! After meeting most of the cast and crew, there was a little party with cake and photo opportunities for the 300th episode. I was allowed to take a picture with the cast in front of the cake, during which I’m glad I didn’t pass out! I met Dick Wolf, who I didn’t realize was going to be there. I told him all about how I have seen every episode and he indulged my star-struck, wide-eyed freak out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We started walking toward Mariska’s dressing room to see if I could finally get my meet and greet with my hero, and we ended up accidentally running into her as we turned a corner. I literally ran into her. I started giggling uncontrollably and doubled over because I couldn’t breathe (remember, I have bad lungs) and she asked, jokingly, if she needed to walk away so I could breathe again. Obviously, I said no!! We were able to sit and talk for a little while and it was so amazing. She wanted to know all about my disease and she took such a real interest, even tearing up multiple times. I was in total disbelief at how amazingly well the day was going. After hearing my story, Mariska got an idea and asked us to follow her to her dressing room. On her wall she had a frame with white paper in it which had the word “Breathe” drawn on it. She told me the story behind this drawing – she made it during an incident where she had a collapsed lung, and she hung it above her door so she could see it whenever she left her dressing room. She took it down, signed the back of it (ending with, “You are a badass. Never forget that”) and gave it to me. We both cried. She also gave me the ‘Fearlessness’ necklace that she was wearing!!! She wears it in every episode, and is a symbol of her Joyful Heart Foundation – and she gave it to ME!!! Again, we both cried. It was such a surreal feeling to be anywhere near her; I couldn’t believe how perfect the day was.

elexa mariska breathe

I was also able to bring the cast some bracelets that I had been selling that say “Just Breathe.” I was sure none of them would actually wear the bracelets, or that the bracelets would break too easily because they were just made of stretchy string, but I still watched every episode after that looking for the bracelet on one of their wrists. It took me about a year – I don’t know how I missed it the first time I saw the episode – but I finally caught a glimpse of my bracelet on Mariska’s wrist in the episode titled, “Vanity’s Bonfire” from 11/14/12 (have I mentioned how much I love Mariska?!). I haven’t noticed the bracelet on any other episode, but I may have just missed it. The last thing I left with my mark on it was a Dream Foundation hat that Kelli Giddish asked me to sign for her. I was so excited that she wanted my autograph, and she said she would wear the hat in her next marathon. I’m not sure if she ever did, but I hope so!!

Elexa Nosonchuk & Danny Pino

I don’t think it’s possible to explain what that trip meant to me. I’ve been trying not to ramble while I type this because I just want to say all of the incredible things that happened in my quick-talking, excited way that makes everyone tell me to calm down. I was invited back, but since I don’t live in New York, I’ll just have to cherish the memories I already have. Danny Pino has been awesome enough to keep in touch with me on Twitter. Every time I get a message from him it makes my stomach jump and I feel the excitement of being on the set all over again. I wish I had taken more pictures, but I was way too excited to think straight. I don’t know if any of the SVU cast and crew remember that day for anything other than it being the 300th episode. I like to think someone other than Danny might remember me, but I understand that they meet fans all the time. I am so grateful for my trip and the memories I’ll always have! I wish I had a word to explain how excited I was all day, but no words exist.

The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance

What have you been doing with SVU off the air? Watching a lot of hockey?  I’ve been desperately trying to finish writing my next book (the deadline is in  nine days — gulp!) and reading an awesome legal humor book during breaks (while standing at the counter eating peanut-butter bagels).

“The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance” is the first book by lawyer/blogger Kevin Underhill, the man who consistently wins the “Fun” category in the ABA’s legal blog rankings.  If you’ve read his blog, Lowering the Bar, you know he has a hilarious, clever take on the most absurd legal happenings every day.  If you don’t read his blog, go do it now.  I’ll wait.  Funny, right? [Read more...]

Win 2 Tickets to the Icing Smiles Gala

My friend Tracy Quisenberry is an amazing woman who started a nonprofit called Icing Smiles, which delivers custom cakes to families impacted by the critical illness of a child. To date, they’ve provided cakes and treats to 2,000 families.

 

icing smiles cake at hospital icing smiles cake

 

 

icing smiles i kicked cancers butt

Tracey Quisenberry, founder of Icing Smiles

Tracy Quisenberry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday, February 2, 2013, Icing Smiles will throw its Second Annual Gala at the Oak Room in Sandy Spring, MD, from 7:00-11:00 p.m.  The event will feature light hors d’oeurves, live entertainment, a silent auction, and dessert (believe me, these people know how to do dessert!).  My husband and I can’t wait to go!

Icing Smiles Gala Poster

I’m giving away two tickets (normally $150), to one of my readers. If you’re interested, leave a comment here noting your favorite cake flavor. One reader’s name will be randomly drawn from a hat next Tuesday.

Need Inspiration? Take a Vacation.

Many of my writer friends are, like me, working parents: juggling literary careers and the intense, non-stop logistical operation that is running a family.  We’re good at keeping dozens of balls in the air – but the first one dropped is usually time for ourselves.

That’s a mistake.  Taking a moment just for yourself – doing what you love, what makes your blood rush, what makes you grin like an idiot – is key to everyone’s sanity.  I think this is especially true for folks in creative jobs.  It may be a key to inspiration.

I’d been searching for that inspiration for the last two months.  I finished my third novel (“Speak of the Devil”) around Thanksgiving, and had been brainstorming my next book’s concept ever since.  But I was exhausted from rushing to meet my deadline and getting ready for the holidays.  In two months, I’d outlined several decent ideas, but none were inspired; none had that Big Book feel.

So I planned a vacation.

swimming with the fishes

Back in the day, my husband and I were adventure travelers: trekking to remote outposts, drinking snake-blood martinis, scuba diving among sunken army tanks. But now I have two little sons.  This time, I bowed to parenthood and booked a Jamaican resort featuring roving Sesame Street characters. [Read more...]

New Year’s Resolutions – for writers and their protagonists

It’s New Year’s Eve!  Time to reflect on the past year – goals met, triumphs won, mistakes made, lessons learned.  Despite their short shelf life, I like New Year’s resolutions.  They hold an optimistic sort of grit – each year presents a new opportunity to remake ourselves through the act of sheer willpower.

Plus, when you think about what you’d like to change, you may just learn something you about yourself.  That’s why writers should consider resolutions not only for ourselves, but also for our protagonists. [Read more...]

Lawyers and Prostitutes: A Comparative Analysis

What’s the difference between a lawyer and a prostitute? (Seriously.) (Actually, not that seriously.) Check out my comparative analysis on Above the Law.

How To Write Realistically About Crime

Last week, Pocket editor Abby Zidle stopped by to talk about the top 5 mistakes that crime writers make.  So, how can a crime writer make her story sparkle, while getting those authentic details right?  Here are some suggestions.

1. Talk to real-life sources.

Know a lawyer or police officer? Ask her about your scene. Don’t know one? Most police stations have a public relations branch that will put you in touch with someone who can answer your questions. Many will allow you to do a ride-along, going in the marked cruiser while a patrol officer does his shift. This is a wealth of how-to information.

Most cops and prosecutors love telling war stories. Be respectful, ask questions, follow up with thankful emails. You may find you have more stories than you can use!

2. Tour your local police facility

Many police stations offer the public the opportunity to visit the station and tour the facilities. For many years, the Baltimore City Police Department had a whole series of tours set up where you could see the coroner’s office, police station, or crime lab. You’ll see the kind of details you simply cannot get anywhere else.

3. Visit a courthouse, watch a trial.

Trials are public, and they can be good entertainment in addition to a wealth of information. Go for a specific trial, or simply poke your head into a bunch of different courtrooms. Each one will have its own ambiance. Some courtrooms are cattle calls of a dozen misdemeanor cases, while others may be holding a major homicide trial or a multi-defendant federal racketeering case. You’ll get a sense for how lawyers ask questions, how witnesses answer, and how the courtroom feels.

4. Consult books on criminal law.

An excellent book on getting the legal details right is Leslie Budewitz’s “Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure.” It won an Agatha last year and is a thoughtful, easy-to-understand how-to manual.

5. Check your terms.

In New York, the main trial court is confusingly called the Supreme Court, while highest court is called the Court of Appeals. A writer unsure of terminology can call the court, check its website, or consult the National Center for State Courts website (www.ncsconline.org) – its  directory shows the structure and names of all state courts.  Another trick: call a law professor in the state you’re writing about.

6. Read the local papers.

Once you’ve chosen the jurisdiction where your story is set, read the local papers for that area. You’ll quickly get a sense of the terminology for that jurisdiction. The stories also reveal local quirks that give a story a sense of place and realism.

7. Walk your city.

Go behind the scenes, beyond the parts you’d see on a bus tour. Touch the pavement and see the streets you’re writing about. Visit the real places where your scenes are set. Ask for a tour. When organizations hear that you’re a writer, they’re often happy to chat with you and get the free publicity.

8. Talk to people.

Strike up conversations with people you wouldn’t normally chat with. Have the courage to ask questions. And then really listen to their answers. Get to know them, where they’re coming from, and what makes them tick. Then use what you’ve learned to create your characters and make them real.

9. Use the Internet

There’s nothing like the experience of actually being in the real place you’re writing about. But if you just can’t make it there, you can find information online covering everything from police terminology, forensics, government sites, and guns. Here are a couple sites that have a great database listing lots of different sources:

Internet Research Resources for Mystery and Crime Writers:  http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/feb99/gak12.htm

Exploring Web Resources for Crime: http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2010/04/exploring-web-resources-for-crime.html

Good luck and have fun!