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In Defense of the Prosecution : THE D.A.: A True Story. By Lawrence Taylor (William Morrow: $25, 400 pp.)

July 28, 1996|Bill Blum | Bill Blum, a former death-penalty attorney, is the author of the novels, "Prejudicial Error" (1995) and "The Last Appeal," to be published next year

According to a 1992 grand jury report, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office had conviction rates of 94% in felony cases and 99% in misdemeanor filings. Why, then, is the office the Rodney Dangerfield of big-city prosecutorial agencies?

The answer, put simply, is that it can't seem to win the big ones. From the "Twilight Zone" prosecution of film director John Landis to the McMartin preschool fiasco, the first Menendez brothers trial and the O.J. Simpson debacle, the district attorney has repeatedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in headline cases as Southern California and the world at large watched from the sidelines in stunned disbelief.

Former deputy prosecutor Lawrence Taylor, now in private practice and the author of four previous books, believes the district attorney's media-driven loser image doesn't jive with reality. He is also fed up with what he calls the "Hollywood version" of the law.

To set the record straight, Taylor wrote a book about "what it is really like to fight the daily wars of the criminal justice system . . . to show the chaos of morning calendar call, the long hours of preparation, the intense pressures of trial, the emotions, tactics, gambles, surprises, doubts, fatigue. . . ." He also wanted to tell his story not by patching together a history of the office's greatest cases but by chronicling a year in the life of The D.A. a flesh-and-blood felony trial deputy. "The D.A.," the end result of Taylor's labors, not only sets the record straight, it does so in dramatic style, as fast-paced as fiction and as gripping as the best of true crime.

The prosecutor Taylor chose as his standard-bearer is Larry Longo. "Larry who?" you might ask. Why, with nearly a thousand L.A. prosecutors to choose from, including such household names as Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, would anyone select a guy who was a virtual unknown outside of a small circle of friends, colleagues and cons doing hard time in state prison?

The answer again is disarmingly simple. Taylor didn't want a household name, a hotshot or a pretty face. He wanted a foot soldier who was just the "opposite of Hollywood's slick, handsome and cool young trial lawyer."

A "gruff and scarred veteran of over 20 years of trial warfare," Longo may not be slick and handsome--he is described as "short, stocky and middle-aged, with the pugnacious mannerisms of a New York cabby"--but it's hard to conceive of Hollywood creating a more engaging or original character. Longo was as much the ideal choice for Taylor's off-beat project as actor Dennis Franz was a natural for the role of "NYPD Blue's" Det. Andy Sipowicz.

The author spent a year, from mid-1991 to mid-1992, tagging along with Longo as the prosecutor plied his trade in Department 127 of the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles. The book opens with Longo clawing his way to a hard-earned conviction of a local lawyer accused of embezzling funds from a former highly ranked professional boxer. It ends with Longo winning a first-degree murder conviction (later reduced to voluntary manslaughter) of a prominent Asian businessman.

Along the way, the courtroom scenes are boldly drawn and crackle with suspense. One minute Longo is tearing into an opponent's expert witness like a pit bull in a three-piece suit, the next he is desperately trying to regroup as his own witnesses flee the jurisdiction or retract prior statements. Readers are treated not only to who said what in court but are also privy to Longo's strategies, his brainstorming sessions with associates and investigators and his ironic musings on the quality of justice. "Endure and believe" are his watchwords for the successful trial attorney.

As absorbing as the major trial scenes are, what happens to Longo out of court or during trial recesses is just as interesting and provides even more insight into the inner life of the district attorney's office. By the early 1990s, Los Angeles had become a racial powder keg. A routine stroll down an office hallway thus leads Longo to a chance encounter with a couple of senior deputies discussing the upcoming Rodney King case. The ensuing discussion, as recounted by Taylor, reveals the politically sensitive nature of the office, as the deputies speculate about who will be selected to head the prosecution's team in a case that all realize could break then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner's political career and ignite a firestorm in the community.

A brief appearance by Marcia Clark on a pretrial matter in Department 127 and another chance encounter with a well-known deputy like Night Stalker prosecutor Phil Halpin serve a similar purpose, allowing Taylor to offer personal, sometimes amusing and sometimes grim sketches of the district attorney's more celebrated deputies. Even before O.J., Clark is described as an ascending star who is the office's answer to Leslie Abramson, the celebrated death-penalty lawyer who represented the Menendez brothers.

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