5-7-16: Personal Violence: Sex and Domestic Crimes: An Interview with Former Federal Prosecutor and Author Alison Leotta

BIO: For twelve years, Allison Leotta was a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., where she specialized in sex crimes, domestic violence, and crimes against children. Drawing on this experience, she now writes legal thrillers, for which she has been dubbed  “the female John Grisham.” Her goal is for John Grisham to be dubbed “the male Allison Leotta.”

After publishing her debut, LAW OF ATTRACTION, Simon & Schuster asked Allison to continue writing about her fictional sex-crimes prosecutor, Anna Curtis.  A series was born! There are now four books in the Anna Curtis series, and a fifth is in the works.

LAW OF ATTRACTION earned a starred review in Library Journal, which said, “In this riveting debut, Leotta joins the big league with pros like Linda Fairstein and Lisa Scottoline.” Allison’s second novel, DISCRETION, was named one of the Top Ten Books of 2012 by Strand Magazine and Best Suspense Novel of 2012 by Romance Reviews Today. Her third novel, SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, was named a Best Book of 2013 by Suspense Magazine. The fourth book in the Anna Curtis series, A GOOD KILLING, came out in 2015 and the latest, which is just coming out, is titled THE LAST GOOD GIRL.

USA Today says Allison’s writing is “as real as it gets.

Allison is also a contributor to the Huffington Post, where she reality-checks TV crime dramas like Law & Order: SVU. Her own blog, The Prime-Time Crime Review, was named one of the best legal blogs in America by the American Bar Association. Allison has provided legal commentary for outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, PBS, and Reuters TV.  She serves on the Board of Directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

A graduate of Michigan State University and Harvard Law School, Allison lives outside of Washington, D.C., with her husband, Michael Leotta, and their two sons.



Allison’s Website:

Allison’s Blog:

Allison on Facebook:

Allison on Twitter:

Huffington Post:

(Courtesy of Suspense Magazine)

Personal Violence: Sex and Domestic Crimes

An Interview with Former Federal Prosecutor and Author Allison Leotta

Interview by D.P. Lyle, MD and Jan Burke

While working as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. for twelve years, Allison Leotta specialized in sex crimes, domestic violence, and crimes against children. Utilizing this tremendous amount of experience, Allison now writes legal thrillers. Having been dubbed, “The female John Grisham,” her goal is for Grisham to be dubbed, “The male Allison Leotta.” Considering her amazing work, that goal is most definitely not out of the realm of possibility.

Her debut novel, “Law of Attraction,” turned her fictional prosecutor, Anna Curtis, into an immediate “must-read.” These standalone thrillers continued with Anna Curtis starring in “Discretion,” “Speak of the Devil,” “A Good Killing,” and, most recently, “The Last Good Girl.” Allison is also the founder of the popular, award-winning blog, The Prime-Time Crime Review.

Taking a break from her busy schedule, Allison sat down with Doug Lyle and Jan Burke for this “Crime and Science Radio” podcast.

Doug Lyle (D.L.): Welcome everyone to “Crime and Science Radio.” We have a great guest today, novelist Allison Leotta. My dear friend for a long time, she is funny, witty, charming, filled with energy and has accomplished a great deal in her young life. A graduate of Michigan State, she received her law degree from Harvard. For twelve years she worked as a federal prosecutor in D.C., specializing in sex crimes, domestic violence and crimes against children. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also a wonderful novelist who writes the outstanding Anna Curtis series. Her latest, “The Last Good Girl” received rave reviews, including one from Oprah who stated it was one of the best of the year. She is also a contributor for The Huffington Post where she “reality checks” TV crime dramas, such as Law & Order, and hosts a blog that was listed as one of the best legal blogs in the U.S. by the American Bar Association. We are excited to have her here today. Welcome Allison.

Allison Leotta (A.L.): Wow. Thank you, Doug, for that intro. I feel like I should leave right now because it won’t get any better than that.

Jan Burke (J.B.): Welcome Allison. We love to talk to our guests about how they ended up in their professions. Could you tell our listeners about your journey into law?

A.L.: Hello, Jan. When it comes to law…it was always an idea kind of there on the side. I had thoughts of being a vet, a firefighter, and then…law school. Partly the decision came because my dad was a federal prosecutor and just loved it. He would come home with these crazy stories and we’d ask him at the dinner table every night what happened that day. It was always fascinating. He was always proud of what he was doing—which I think is a luxury for prosecutors. He always stated that he loved fighting for the right cause. He “felt like the eagle was on his shoulder.”

When it came my turn, I gravitated to that. I went to Michigan State. I come from a long line of Spartans: Go Green! Everybody in my family went to MSU. After that, I went to Harvard Law, clerked a year for a judge, then went to the Department of Justice in D.C.

J.B.: That’s pretty amazing. Some people say that getting into Harvard is not exactly easy.

A.L.: This is true. (LOL) Some say the only thing harder than getting in, however, is getting out. Which is also true because I guess I never did really. Here I am, still talking about the law.

D.L.: What led you into federal law? In particular, the area of sex crimes, domestic violence, etc.

A.L.: It was actually a path I was really interested in. I wanted to see and be a part of the law that helped the most vulnerable in our society. In particular, women, children, and people who don’t have a voice.

When I went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. there were two tracks. Every young prosecutor would come, these big classes, and they would funnel you into one of the two tracks. There were the general crimes, misdemeanors, and then the degrees would rise, such as drugs and gun crimes, which would then follow along into homicide. The other track I would call crimes against “specialized victims.” In my office it was actually named the Sex Crimes & Domestic Violence Unit. You would request which of these tracks you wanted, and it was kind of an interesting breakdown. Can you guess? Most women would request the direction of domestic violence and sex crimes, whereas most of the men wanted to pursue the homicide track.

J.B.: You mentioned various degrees of crimes; can you elaborate on what the degrees entail?

A.L.: Well, you have misdemeanors which, in D.C., come along with less than six months of jail time or no jail time at all. There are some that get tried as misdemeanors but the crime was a little more on the harsh side. In D.C., for example, one of the big problems came from out-of-state school groups coming to D.C. and getting groped by men at tourist sites and monuments.

Then comes the more serious crimes; felony sex crimes that come along with a year or more of imprisonment if you’re convicted. These crimes are more serious when utilizing violence, there is a threat of violence, if done with the use of a weapon, or if it occurs during the course of another crime. If you break in to someone’s home, say, and then commit a sex crime as well, it becomes very serious.

J.B.: Some people don’t quite understand D.C. and their systems; some see it as a legal phenomenon because it is so different from the states. Can you clarify?

A.L.: That’s a very good question, actually. We are sort of the “redheaded stepchild” of the federal system. D.C. is a federal city and there is no DA’s office like in other states. States will have offices that handle local crimes, like murders and rapes. In D.C., the U.S. Attorney’s Office must handle all cases. Murders, rapes, and all federal crimes like, bank robberies or political corruption. This wide variety actually makes it a really fascinating place to work; every possible crime you can imagine was coming through our office and provided amazing fodder for what we would talk about at the “water cooler” each day.

D.L.: You are a regular contributor for The Huffington Post and on your blog you make sure to reality check TV crime dramas which is, unfortunately, where most people get educated on crime, evidence collection, forensic science, etc. Why, exactly, did you end up doing that, and what are some of the most egregious errors you’ve seen on TV and in the news?

A.L.: I have to say, Doug, I learned some of the most interesting forensics from your blog. I had no idea that I could kill someone with octopus ink, for example; being a federal prosecutor for 12 years didn’t even teach me that. (LOL)

There is a true phenomenon of people learning their crime facts and what goes on in courtrooms from TV shows. Of course, it is important to always remember that TV dramatizes these issues and doesn’t even show the boring stuff. In fact, a lot of those shows look more science fiction to me. In shows there is DNA evidence and fingerprints all over everything at the scene of the crime. In the real world, I most often have to call in an expert to explain to jurors why, exactly, there is a lack of evidence. They need to teach jurors about things like manufacturers making guns out of stipple, bumpy metal material that actually does not hold fingerprints. In addition, it is quite easy for a criminal to simply wipe a gun clean. But you have to bring in that expert to tell jurors about this because of what they learned on TV and in various novels.

My more personal pet peeve comes from being a sex crimes prosecutor. Although this is not “Thanksgiving table conversation,” my personal pet peeve is when you watch things like SVU and the woman “cannot be believed” because she has no vaginal injuries after claiming she was raped. The truth is that more than 50% percent of the time, even in violent sexual assaults, there are no vaginal injuries. After all, we are talking about “material” that was made to expand and not get torn, considering it must be able to fit a baby. But when the jury sees that there are no injuries they begin to believe that the woman must have consented. They feel that if the action was terrible and brutal, like rape, there would be injuries. That is not the fact, and it is a very dangerous way to evaluate a sex crimes case. As a prosecutor I was always trying to educate the jury and take away those preconceived notions they learned from television.

D.L.: Isn’t the trauma most likely elsewhere, anyway?

A.L.: It depends on the crime. For example, on college campuses, most likely you will not see injuries because the victim is usually intoxicated or incapacitated by a date rape drug. When this occurs, she does not have the ability to consent. The evidence would be more along the lines of a frat party or a big bar tab. In cases where more force or violence is used then, yes, there are all sorts of injuries found on the body, where they were tied up, etc.

One of the hardest cases I worked was in regards to a nice, hardworking single mom. She was up at five a.m. to bring her kids to her mom’s place and worked very hard. Her rapist was a neighbor; a terrible guy who’d gotten out of jail after being convicted of raping another woman. He fixated on her, stalked her and one day jumped in her car, put a knife to her throat, and told her to put her kids in the trunk. She refused, and the kids managed to get out, run away, and go for help. Meanwhile, he took her to an area, assaulted her, and beat her to within an inch of her life. He thought he’d left her for dead. Somehow she managed to survive, crawled away through the woods, and made it. She sustained extensive injuries, her skull was fractured and she had to stay in the hospital for months, but there were no vaginal injuries. Juries have to be aware of these factors.

J.B.: In your career, what were the most common crimes committed?

A.L.: That actually depended on the section. You had a lot of the misdemeanors; the ridiculous, petty crimes, such as boob or butt grabs out in public places. Then you had the most heartbreaking of crimes which were the child crimes. People ask me if there is anything I couldn’t write about. I couldn’t write about the kid cases; they were heartbreaking. They completely changed me as a mom. I have two children and, after working in this field for so long, I have become paranoid and suspicious over time. From coaches to babysitters…it’s those people you “welcome” into your life and people you trust that, more often than not, are the worst ones. There are many where it is mom’s new boyfriend. After working in this field, if I ever got a divorce, I would never date again; I’d just get 12 cats, or something.

The “type” that preys on kids is rarely the “stranger” who tries to pick them up from school or offers them candy if they get in his car. Although these are good conversations to have with your kids, in my experience, I never had one case where that was what had happened. The predators were people you could trust, which is a lot more frightening.

D.L.: When it comes to sex crimes and domestic violence, what are the numbers; or, perhaps I should say, the scope of the problem?

A.L.: It’s hard to say, Doug, because sex crimes are the most under-reported crimes in the U.S., especially when men are the victims. One of the most frightening numbers that played into one of my books, however, are the number of girls who are sexually assaulted at college. One in five, and that is shocking. Hard to imagine that 20% who head off to college will be sexually assaulted, which should give you pause. I’m not surprised by the numbers, as a prosecutor. But when I go around and talk to people as a writer, I am amazed when people thank me for writing about this subject because it happened to them. There are so many out there who never reported it. You can blame this on the culture of ‘victim blaming’ and the times where victims blame themselves. There is a stigma and it effects more people than you think.

J.B.: What about a topic that has received a lot of press, such as sex trafficking? Can you discuss this topic and if you handled any of these cases?

A.L.: We did handle those in D.C., and these are not always what people believe them to be. These are rarely sex slaves that are brought into our country. These are girls ages 13 to 16 who fall in love with pimps and let their new “boyfriends” bring them from state to state. These pimps are super slick and have amazing internal radar for finding those with low self-esteem. They can pick them out just by walking down the street, or at the mall. They say the right things, take the girl home with them, and mention how happy they would be if the girl would have sex with their friend, Joe. The word gets out and they begin doing it whenever this boyfriend of theirs asks them to. Soon these guys build their own stable of girls, add them to internet sites and start bringing in the money.

J.B.: You mentioned low self-esteem as being a trait of these girls. Are there any other characteristics common to these victims?

A.L.: They are usually runaways, or girls without supportive families. Some even have families fighting over them because of a divorce and they get so emotionally upset that they run away. Trafficking takes the most vulnerable, even those from other countries who do not speak the language well. This crime is all about control and power, and if you don’t speak the language, you become vulnerable to the guy who does.

J.B.: What are the major reasons why these crimes are under-reported, when it comes to domestic violence, etc.?

A.L.: For domestic violence, it’s a crime that for a long time was not even considered a crime. Police officers were trained in a certain way many years ago. You would get a call and go to a house where a wife sat with a black eye and a husband was literally out of control. You would basically ask how you could make it a peaceful night and calm everyone down. Then, they’d simply leave. This goes back to the day when husbands were considered to own their wives, and it couldn’t be a crime to beat up a possession.

I think we’re certainly moving in the right direction, thankfully. It is no longer easy to say that some woman simply, “had it coming.” Police procedures and training have changed. If they go to a scene and have probable cause that domestic violence has happened, they must now make an arrest. It is taken seriously today; the legal status of whether it’s a crime or not is over. 

J.B.: There was a time, especially when the news came out about rape kits being backlogged, when I thought that the law was only focused on bringing what they knew would be successful prosecutions into the courtroom; like it was a waste of time to try to prosecute if the victim had, say, arrests or were on drugs, etc.

A.L.: That is one of the most ridiculous scandals in the criminal justice system right now; the rape kit backlog. Your listeners most likely know about the kit that is a collection of evidence immediately taken in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Swabs and hair are taken, fingernail scrapings—all of this evidence is put into a box. In an ideal world it is then sent out and tested. This is the best evidence possible when it comes to finding out exactly who was there at the scene and who committed the crime.

Unfortunately, the testing is horrible. It is estimated that there are 400,000 of these little white boxes sitting in police stations and warehouses across the country. You feel angry for the victim. After all, they took the time to report the crime, go through this fairly invasive examination after going through such trauma, and then it’s not even tested. These victims have strong backbones and a great deal of grit and courage to go through this process (kudos to all of them) but then their kits are not tested for a variety of reasons. This is appalling.

Worst part is that these kits prove a number of the predators are serial rapists and could’ve been stopped if the tests had been done. In Detroit, for example, 10,000 rape kits that’d been sitting there for goodness knows how long were finally tested. In the first 1000 tests, they found serial rapists who could have been locked up with crime number one and never had the ability to create even more victims.

D.L.: These serial predators are some “special group” committed to what they do from some deep psychological need. And most interface with people who are just going through life.

A.L.: Exactly. When they started to expand the databases, even non-violent, they found people who were arrested on burglary but had also raped or murdered. So, there are those times to think about where someone is breaking into a home, but the police are called before they can succeed. It’s possible that the predator was there to commit other crimes but didn’t get a chance to act on them because a boyfriend or a gun was there that the predator didn’t know about.

One case I had was where this woman worked at a hospital. She would give her key to the valet every day to park her car. This valet grew obsessed with her and one day took her whole keychain and made copies of the keys to her house. He stalked her for a while and then went into her house one day, with rope, duct tape, etc., set up a miniature camera on her desk to tape the act, and then hid under her bed and waited for her to come home. Luckily, her boyfriend was with her and they climbed into bed and went to sleep, completely oblivious to the fact that this man was underneath them. They heard something in the middle of the night and the boyfriend took a flashlight and found the man; he then beat this stalker to within an inch of his life and it was all captured on the video that the criminal had set-up. Poetic justice, if you ask me. Ever since, I have made sure to keep my house key on a separate keychain from my car keys.

D.L.: I do that as well. Say everything with a case turns out absolutely right. The victim reports, the evidence collection, the prosecutor goes ahead with the trial, etc. What hurdles do you have to still jump in order to get a conviction?

A.L.: Oh, goodness, there are so many. There is jury selection, at first. You want to find jurors that will be fair, open-minded and willing to believe the victim even if they do have a dark past. You want jurors with life experience who understand the gritty side of things; maybe someone who even lives in the victim’s neighborhood and knows how things go.

CSI we’ve already talked about; getting everyone to understand reality. Then comes the hurdle of the person’s testimony. You are already asking someone who has had the hardest and worst night of their entire lives to walk into a fluorescent lit courtroom, hold it together as strangers turn in their seats while they walk down the aisle and sit on that witness stand. Then the person has to stare at a strange judge, and tell jurors all about the nightmare while the guy who did it is actually sitting across from them at a table, smiling. This takes unbelievable courage, to lift their hand up and point a finger at their assailant. They put trust in the system that this horrible person will not get out of jail after that. It’s even worse with a child victim or a young teenager; some haven’t even seen a courtroom. You go through the act of taking them there and showing them where they’ll sit, where the judge is, etc., in order to make them feel comfortable.

Then you have the legal hurdles; getting the DNA processed on time and hollering and screaming so that yours does not get backlogged. The fights you have to take on in order to be able to keep the evidence in, and training the police officers on how to take the evidence constitutionally so it doesn’t get thrown out.

That just scratches the surface; there are so many hurdles.

D.L.: Were there any cases where unexpected issues came up for you; things that were problematic that you didn’t see coming?

A.L.: Actually, every single one was like that. In some ways it was like living a thriller every day by working in D.C. prosecuting sex crimes. I would be walking to work, heading to the subway, and wondering what would happen that day. Running a trial is a logistical feat, balancing witness evidence, the timing, the judge, the jury…it’s crazy. I’m a Type A personality, so I would have it all ready to go, with binders of exhibits marked, spreadsheets done, and would know exactly how I was going to present the case. And I can say, I don’t think it ever happened the way I had planned. Something would come up, from a police officer who got shot on the way to the courthouse; to a witness who said right before getting on the stand that there was some ‘important’ detail they’d forgotten to tell me. But I loved it; some people really hate that environment, but I loved it. It was a good match. 

J.B.: You talked about becoming paranoid because of some of the cases you worked on, but besides that, does the handling of those cases take a personal toll on you?

A.L.: Yes. They definitely did. It’s like being in the Army: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” Being a sex crimes prosecutor was like that. Seeing the worst things that humanity could do to each other was difficult but super-rewarding at the same time, because I was fighting for something. It was nice to fight and make things a little more right, even if I couldn’t solve everything. Everyone I knew had something different that they took on to try to help the personal toll. We had marathon runners, marathon shoppers in the unit, and I decided to write novels. I thought of different angles and characters in the courthouse, so I think I processed any trauma or toll through books. 

J.B.: So that’s what led to writing fiction.

A.L.: Without a doubt.

D.L.: Well, you definitely constructed a wonderful character with Anna Curtis. How did you create her and how much of you is in that character?  

A.L.: Anna is a sex crimes prosecutor in D.C. (surprise, surprise), but I think readers automatically believe she and I are the same person. We’re definitely not. She is a lot more interesting than I am; she can go to the edge of everything. As a normal person doing the job by the book, I would not be able to do that.

When I first started constructing Anna, I thought she would be from my husband’s side of the family. He comes from an enormous Sicilian family where every kitchen has a grandma standing over a giant pot of red sauce that smells absolutely amazing. All you want to do is tear off a piece of garlic bread and dip it into that sauce. So at the beginning, I wrote from that angle. With the first novel you don’t really know what you’re doing quite yet; you’re still figuring out how all of it works. It took a while for me to learn that Anna did not have a big, supportive family with the red sauce. She had a dark background, which made her understand her victims more and take her job more seriously. Her childhood was a troubled one.

I have to say, I feel really bad for my amazing father. He is the sweet, kind, gentle prosecutor, yet people think he’s the horrible monster of a dad that Anna has. I didn’t realize that people would think she was me and her family was my family. So for anyone out there, my dad is really nice and would not hurt a fly. I definitely “constructed” this character.

D.L.: So tell us about the 5th in this series, “The Last Good Girl.”

A.L.: It is the 5th, but they are all standalones, and I want every reader to pick up any one of them and, if they like it, I hope they read them all. In this, Anna is called to a university because a young woman has disappeared from the campus. She starts to investigate and discovers that this woman accused a very popular frat boy of assaulting her right before she disappeared. The investigation continues and Anna finds that there is a lot more than meets the eye about the college, and the system they have set up to handle reports like these. 

D.L.: And it’s great. I have to say to all, read it and give it “5 stars” on Amazon. Everyone should read your other books, as well. Should I assume Anna gets involved in situations that echo things you were doing, or is this all fiction?

A.L.: I try to use my experience but I have never written about one particular case. I take all the interesting details and real moments in life and incorporate them into the stories. The most delicious, interesting, and sometimes most heartbreaking details from all my cases get sewn into the books. 

D.L.: Any final thoughts about your area of expertise that you wish to impart to the people out there? 

A.L.: I will say this. When I ask police officers what the number one thing is to keep a woman home alone at night safe, they say: “Have a dog.” No one wants to break in to a house with a dog. I have one from the Fairfax County animal shelter. I’m not sure they would scare anyone away, but officers say the dog doesn’t have to be vicious; just noisy.

J.B.: I think mine would go after someone. I think all dogs would, actually. They’re very territorial. Even the nicest are highly protective and wouldn’t let strangers inside.

D.L.: Mine wouldn’t deter a criminal, but he would delay them by leading them to the kitchen. After all, the stranger has thumbs and the dog would want to show him something. (LOL) Allison, this has been outstanding. We really appreciate you sharing your font of knowledge with our listeners. 

A.L.: It was an honor to be here. Thank you for having me.

We’d like to thank Allison for joining “Crime and Science Radio.” To learn more about this incredible award-winning talent, check out her website at:  ■

Originally aired on Crime & Science Radio; March 2016.

© Douglas Lyle 2015