“I love the idea of sitting down with a blank piece of paper and creating a world from imagination. I love Malcolm Gladwell even though he’s not a novelist — he creates certain visuals in your imagination, and that’s what I try to do.”
Alan Jackson, 43, is no novelist himself, nor a screenwriter or blogger, but one of L.A.’s most highly regarded superior court prosecutors, a man who prefers to speak to jurors as though he and they were all sitting around a campfire at night, rather than fling a lot of data and conclusions at them.
“I try,” he says, “to transport the jury to that dark alley where the murder took place or back into the bedroom where the rape took place. I try to move them from the courtroom to the darkness of the event. The producer of 60 Minutes reportedly began every staff meeting with the same four words: ‘Tell me a story.’ That’s exactly what I try to do.”
Assistant D.A. Jackson, a former Texan who speaks in a voice filled with boyish wonder, has been involved in two of L.A.’s highest-profile murder cases. The first secured the conviction of Michael Goodwin, accused in the 1988 slaying of race-car driver/businessman Mickey Thompson and his wife; the second ended in a frustrating hung jury following the murder trial of record producer Phil Spector. Jackson’s summation in the Spector trial was a mesmerizing display that began when Jackson pulled up a chair in front of the jury box and sat eye-level with jurors as he walked them through the death of Lana Clarkson. The secret of Jackson’s bedside manner with jurors may well lie in what seems like a reckless gamble: He never ends his summation by telling jurors what to think but leaves them with a question to ponder.
He didn’t begin this auspiciously. Having left the Air Force as a flight mechanic because his eyesight wouldn’t allow him to become a pilot, Jackson took four years of college before realizing that being a lawyer would suit his narrative abilities. Even then, his first court appearance was rocky. It was in some long-forgotten misdemeanor drunk-driving case. During voir dire, when attorneys query potential jurors and block some from being seated, Jackson went blank.
“I stood up and did not know what to ask,” Jackson recalls 13 years later. “I thought, There’s a secret here and I did not get that memo. You just stand there and I swear to God you think you hear crickets in the courtroom. I don’t remember what I said — it was just a white flash and the next thing I know I was being asked by the judge who I wanted excused. I thought, That guy’s jacket is too purple — I’ll just excuse him. And that guy’s wearing a Members Only jacket, he’s off — I hate those jackets! That lady looks like my third-grade teacher who slapped my wrist — she’s off!
Like many prosecutors, Jackson fights the temptation to become cynical.
“I’ve never taken an oath to win cases,” says the prosecutor, who is next taking on the case against Japanese businessman Kazuyoshi Mirua, accused of hiring a hitman to murder his wife during a 1981 visit to Los Angeles. “I’ve taken an oath to seek justice. In the middle of the night when I wake up I’ll feel sad about a result, but I don’t buy into that easy way out and say the justice system is broken. It’s just a bad result. This is not a perfect system, it never will be.”
What keeps Jackson “charged up,” he says, is looking at the families of murder victims.
“They’re not tired or burned out,” Jackson says. “This isn’t their 12th trial of the year. The day I can’t do that is the day I’ll stay out of the courtroom and do something else.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon