Prosecutor sees justice even though he’s blind

first_img“When the jury sees that the prosecutor is a blind person, I’ve got their interest,” said Wojdak, who belongs to the 200-member National Association of Blind Lawyers. The Chicago native wasn’t supposed to be a lawyer. Had he not lost his eyesight at 16 – a condition linked to his mother’s bout with the German measles during pregnancy – he would have followed his father and four brothers into the family’s rare-coin business. “You have to be able to see coins in order to tell if they’re real or not,” he said. Although he aspired to a legal career, his blindness made academic work a struggle. He dictated term papers into a tape recorder, then transcribed them on an electric typewriter. He almost dropped out of college because of the pressure. “I thought, `My God, if I can’t do regular college work, how am I going to do my thesis? How am I going to go to law school? How am I going to take the bar?”‘ He took a semester off in 1978, and worked for a political action committee, writing summaries of news stories. He later worked for a Superior Court judge, writing a guide on rules for allowing hearsay evidence in court. Along the way, he became enamored with arguing before a jury. “I wanted to show an employer that I could be a productive employee,” said Wojdak, who graduated from Hastings Law School in San Francisco in 1984. “That was really, I thought, the most critical thing that a sighted person would want to understand, that if they hired me I could actually produce the product a sighted person could.” Armed with glowing recommendations from professors and a district attorney, Wojdak got a job as a county prosecutor. Over the last 22 years, he’s won about 80 percent of his cases, about average for the office. Glendale Police Officer Tracy Lowrey has worked dozens of cases with Wojdak, including one in which a man was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old neighbor. Lowrey said Wojdak develops an instant rapport with victims, especially children, making them comfortable with relaying the most intimate details about a crime. “He’s very conscientious about the cases and he loves what he does,” Lowrey said. Planning is key to Wojdak’s career. His suits and shirts are color coded, using a system of dog tag-like labels. His ties are arranged on a rack, each described in Braille on a note card kept nearby. Before a trial, Wojdak paces off the distance from the prosecution table to the court reporter, the jury box and the judge’s bench so he can move about with confidence. “The jury needs to feel confident that the person who’s asking them to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is someone that they can rely on, who has his own act together enough,” he said. “If I look waffley and flaky, then they’re not going to find the person guilty based on what I tell them.” Wojdak’s computer is equipped with software that reads his e-mails aloud and tells him the letters he’s typing. He has three assistants; they guide him through courthouse hallways, help him keep track of facts, describe prospective jurors. “Does juror No. 1 seem bored, restless?” said Carly Sutherland, 19, one of the assistants. “If someone doesn’t bring a sweater, it indicates that the person doesn’t plan ahead.” Despite his organization and professional success, Wojdak doesn’t immediately inspire confidence in everyone he meets. One victim wondered aloud whether the blind prosecutor would be able to win a conviction against the men who robbed and raped her in 2004. “I wasn’t sure he could fully represent me as well as someone who could see,” said the 20-year-old woman, who works at a Northridge paint store. After her initial hesitation, she quickly changed her mind. Wojdak listened. He didn’t judge. He called occasionally to tell her he hadn’t forgotten about her as the case dragged on over two and a half years. “It was his tone of voice, the words he used,” the woman said. “He wouldn’t use `rape.’ He was very sensitive. He was always asking if I’m OK. He’d never make me feel pressured.” The men were convicted in December. Defense attorney Jonathan Mandel of Encino, who represented one of the defendants, has a lot of respect for Wojdak. “I think he’s fair and he’s always been straight with me,” he said. “His ability to synthesize and present information is extraordinary when sight is so important in trial work.” [email protected] (818) 713-3635 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Wrapping up the loose ends of a case, veteran prosecutor Phil Wojdak needed to verify a witness’ claim of seeing a sexual assault. So he climbed over the kitchen sink of a Glendale apartment, scooted out the window and scaled the slanted roof to get a better feel for the situation. With a detective’s assistance, Wojdak concluded the witness was reliable. The vantage point was clear. Such a meticulous re-creation would be less than remarkable for most hard-working prosecutors – just part of the job. But Wojdak is blind. “I did it so I could understand it, so I could explain it to a jury,” he said of his rooftop exploits, which helped convict a man of sexually assaulting his own son. “I’ve got to go where the crime happens, I suppose.” For 22 years, Wojdak has worked for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. His current assignment is prosecuting elder abuse, sexual assault, stalking, family violence and hate crimes. “His blindness doesn’t affect him in any way,” said Denis Leeds, the clerk in Department H in Pasadena Superior Court, where Wojdak’s lizard-skin cowboy boots and diamond-stud earring are a familiar sight. “He’s an excellent attorney. He’s very aggressive. He’s very passionate about his cases.” And while some might see his blindness as a major obstacle, Wojdak, 49, said he thinks it gives him an advantage. last_img
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