Leotta draws on job as sex-crimes prosecutor in D.C. for 'Law of Attraction'

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 10:19 PM

The worst part of writing her chick-lit legal thriller, Allison Leotta says, was the day she had to show her boss the sex scenes.

"He slowly brought his face to hers. . . . Nick whispered that she was beautiful, stunning, exquisite, incandescent. She smiled and whispered back that he was a thesaurus."

Is this the kind of legal brief a U.S. attorney for the District, J.D. cum laude, Harvard Law School, should be turning in?

"Whew! That was nerve-wracking," Leotta recalls. As a federal prosecutor of sex crimes, she's used to having straightforward conversations with her bosses about the pathologies of defendants and the gruesome details of cases. But when her manuscript for "Law of Attraction" had to be vetted by six senior prosecutors and the first assistant U.S. attorney before she could send it to agents, she was, at best, uncomfortable.

She had made some boo-boos, revealing how her heroine bypasses the security station in the U.S. courthouse in downtown Washington. In another scene, police slide carpet samples at a murder scene into a Ziploc bag. "My boss was like: 'No, Ali, you need a paper bag. Plastic would allow air to degrade the evidence.' "

Leotta was lucky that sex crimes don't generally compromise national security, her supervisors' main concern.

Her racy debut novel, released by Simon and Schuster in October and set in the District, draws on her day job of seven years prosecuting domestic violence, rape, child abuse, human trafficking and other sex crimes. Main character Anna Curtis is a rookie prosecutor for the same U.S. attorney. She can't shake from her mind a young mother repeatedly beaten by her boyfriend. Laprea Johnson refused to testify against D'marco Davis the last time he was in court, allowing him to go free. Then a corpse wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag turns up on a trash heap in Anacostia. It's a pregnant woman. Anna is assigned her first homicide case.

The 26-year-old heroine has another problem besides inexperience. She's sleeping with the defense attorney. And she's about to risk her career, her relationships and her life as she uncovers the truth behind the murder on Alabama Avenue SE.

Lots of lawyers who every day see tragedy and evil, courageous victims and eyewitnesses who risk everything to come forward have novels stuffed in their desk drawers. Leotta actually finished one - taking on a still-taboo subject - and got it published. Pregnant with her first son, she opened her laptop on the kitchen table of her Takoma Park bungalow at 5 a.m. to type before work.

In keeping with its fast-paced genre, "Law of Attraction" has a love triangle, cynical and corrupt cops, ethical quandaries and bizarre plot twists. Anna, also fresh out of Harvard Law, tries to sort out her personal and professional lives as she's immersed in a world of street crime and broken institutions. Leotta calls it "Pride and Prejudice" meets "The Wire."

Tall, blond and lanky, the author has lost her appetite as bloggers and reviewers weigh in, most with accolades. At Mark's Kitchen in Takoma Park, she picks at a milk shake and stir-fry. "Publishing a book is like walking down the street in your underwear," she laughs. She worries about her colleagues. "I hope they think I got it right in terms of telling an authentic story."

Leotta's boss, Kelly Higashi, would only call her "impressive."

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