Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is a collector at heart. His office, on the 18th floor of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles, is a scrapbook of his four decades with the District Attorney's Office, the last 10 years as its chief.
Bookshelves are stuffed with commemorative clocks, plaques, pins and more than 100 "challenge" coins and medallions from other prosecutors and cops. A small shrine to his father speaks to how Cooley thinks. Cooley senior was an FBI agent, and his hero. The son displays his dad's Eagle Scout memorabilia, encased in glass.
Cooley, the third-longest-serving D.A. in the history of L.A. County, where voters delight in ousting the top prosecutor after just a term or two, is in a fight to become California's next attorney general. He flips through a book describing his two long-ago, longer-serving predecessors, John D. Fredericks and Buron Fitts, and he chuckles — because both lost their own bids for higher office, in 1915 and 1930, respectively.
Cooley has something of the Boy Scout in him. Although repeatedly reelected by the liberal voters of Los Angeles County, he is among L.A.'s least-known, and least controversial, public figures — a low-key act amid a noir parade of serial killers, gang murderers and celebrity arrestees. "I am not a photo-op D.A.," he says, an obvious jab at Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "The city is beset with individuals who think it is all about putting their mug on TV. You are courting disaster. Eventually the public will say, 'Just do your job.' "
Cooley has cracked down on political corruption in L.A.'s aging suburbs and gone after politicians who violate the Brown Act transparency laws. He has refused to automatically pursue a "third strike" against felons when the third violation is nonviolent. He's prosecuting fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson's doctor Conrad Murray, and medical-pot dispensaries.
With typical bluntness, Cooley, 63, says he jumped into the attorney-general race in part because he found a few of the candidates "somewhere between disconcerting and frightening."
While Cooley may be popular with voters, he has critics, the most vocal of whom are furious over his strong support of the death penalty. A few months ago, the same day an Orange County judge sentenced serial killer Rodney Alcala to death for murdering four women and a 12-year-old girl, the ACLU released a report showing that Cooley's sprawling jurisdiction, which it calls "Killer County," leads the U.S. in the number of murderers sent to death row.
"They aren't taking into consideration the evil," Cooley says. He's sitting near an especially intriguing item in his collection: a drawing by courtroom sketch artist Mona Edwards of Chester Dewayne Turner, L.A.'s most prolific serial killer, who murdered 10 women. Cooley's friend John Tyre defended Turner and commissioned the famed courtroom artist to sketch the proceedings. Cooley ended up with a copy.
The good lad raised by an FBI father says of those sent to death row by L.A. County juries, "These are bad people."
He won't put a guy in prison for stealing socks, but getting blamed for the latest additions to death row, he says, "is like a badge of honor."