As a deputy district attorney, David Wolf can hardly bear to watch television shows like "CSI" and "Law & Order," fast-paced crime and courtroom potboilers that aren't about to be slowed down by plot killers like accuracy, legal procedure and the Fourth Amendment.
But when several European law students visited Kern County recently to get a first-hand look at the American justice system, Wolf turned to Hollywood for help, showing the group a film that, in his estimation, offers some pretty authentic courtroom scenes:
"My Cousin Vinny."
The 1992 Joe Pesci comedy is a classic showcase of "voir dire," a French term that means "to speak the truth." The attorney explained that voir dire is used during jury selection and sometimes as the basis to question the qualifications of expert witnesses at trial.
"'My Cousin Vinny' shows both types of voir dire and they're both accurate," Wolf said in an illuminating phone conversation Monday. "There are only a few little tiny mess-ups in 'My Cousin Vinny,' but I don't know if the writers messed up or if the attorney in the movie is supposed to mess up."
"My Cousin Vinny" gets a rare pass from the discerning Wolf, 49, who handles homicide cases for the District Attorney's Office and is the guest speaker at a meeting of the Writers of Kern on Saturday. The presentation is geared to aspiring writers of crime novels, but any fan of courtroom best-sellers, movies or television programs is in for a lively morning with the engaging Wolf, who can rattle off a mile-a-minute litany of La La Land-meets-legalese gripes, all delivered with equal parts elucidation and wit.
The attorney's challenge: limit his pet peeves to 10.
"On TV, every cop and D.A. has an iPad with your financial data on it," Wolf said. "So what's Jennifer Self got in the bank right now? You'd have to do a search warrant and it takes months to get records. We're in the United States and have a Fourth Amendment. We don't want to get something if it's not admissable."
And don't get him started on the ratings-baiting drama he sees.
"One of my points might be the media. The media and the FBI. In the movies, the local cops hate the FBI because the FBI is going to come in and take your case. On television, they hate the media, they don't want to talk to the media. In real life, it's not a love relationship, but we respect each other's roles. When we're trying to get the word out or warn people about something, we can't survive without you guys."
Wolf was approached by Writers of Kern after working with the group on a scholarship program for children, though, as a writer himself, he's a natural choice to lead the discussion. In addition to contributing pieces on the law and courtroom testimony to prison training manuals, he has committed to paper a story he used to tell his children about a chicken who wants to become a rooster. The title of the book: "But You're a Girl."
"I'm an official writer because it's been rejected several times," Wolf said with a laugh of the book's reception from the publishing industry. "The kids loved it."
That discouragement aside, he feels that, based on his 20-plus years of experience putting bad guys away, he's got to have his own John Grisham-esque thriller in him somewhere. He's just too busy to write it.
"Maybe when I retire. The only thing that stops you is that people keep committing crimes. You convict one murderer and the next day another one is waiting to be prosecuted."
Wolf briefly escaped the criminal justice grind awhile back, an experimental time for his career when he toyed with the idea of practicing tax law -- until his wife told him he was crazy. He ended up taking a job in the county counsel's office for about a year, coming away with a couple of revelations: One, that civil attorneys are, in fact, not very civil to one another, and that once you've been a prosecutor, it's hard to feel as committed to anything else.
"There's usually a good guy and a bad guy; it's not very gray, like it is with civil cases."
Another benefit is that his years at the D.A.'s office have provided him with endless source material for a dumb-criminals compilation or two.
"We had a gal who was wanted for workers' comp fraud. She got pulled over and avoided getting arrested by giving a fake last name: Alias. Nobody realized the name until they let her go and I heard it and told them what she did."
Though Wolf's writing plans make him Exhibit A in support of the maxim that people should write what they know, he said you don't have to be a cop or attorney to tell a credible crime story.
"I don't want to discourage anybody. I think it depends on how gifted a writer you are. I could make a good solid, logical argument about why someone is guilty. I can't describe a sunset. People who are eloquent with words impress me. If they were a good writer and wanted to do their homework, I think they could write a good book."
To prepare for Saturday's presentation, the attorney is watching a lot of bad TV and crafting his arguments with the same vigor and scrutiny he brings to a murder trial. If opposing attorneys quake at Wolf's ability to dismantle a defense strategy, they should see what he can do to an episode of "Rizzoli & Isles."
"I've watched and will have comments, but if you want to know what those comments are, you have to come to the presentation."