Counting killers: Former prosecutor extrapolates court experiences in novels

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When she was a prosecutor, Pamela Wechsler didn’t count sheep on the many sleepless nights her job entailed.

Instead, she counted killers and their victims.

When Wechsler (pronounced “Wex-ler”), 56, of Los Angeles, consulted on 2014’s “The Judge” – starring Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr., Oscar nominee Robert Duvall, Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton, Michigan native Dax Shepard, and Brother Rice High School alumnus Denis O’Hare – she told Thornton, who played prosecutor Dwight Dickham, about the emotional toll that being a prosecutor took on her and how she counted killers as a sleep aid.

“(Thornton) found that interesting and told me it was a good idea for a book with the possibility of turning it into something else. That was the beginning of the conversation. I thought, ‘He’s won an Oscar (for Best Adapted Screenplay for 1996’s ‘Sling Blade’), so he does know what he’s talking about,” recalled Wechsler, who was a prosecutor in her native Boston for almost 20 years.

She quit her job and gave herself a year to write this novel. She enrolled in a novel-writing workshop at GrubStreet, Inc., Boston’s creative writing center. It took her four months to write the first draft of “Mission Hill,” her first novel. Six months later, she had a three-book deal.

The second book in that deal, “The Graves” (Minotaur Books $25.99), debuted in early May. It features the return of Abby Endicott, the chief of the district attorney’s homicide unit in Boston, who debuted in “Mission Hill.”

In “The Graves,” the homicide unit is going after a serial killer who already murdered two college girls. Evidence leads to the sons of a prominent senator, whose political clout hamstrings the investigation. Undaunted, Abby keeps pushing, eventually learning that this serial killer is someone she may indeed know who’s now targeting her.

“(‘The Graves’) was drawn from cases I had or I knew about. Boston is such a college town, so I wanted to have something about colleges and universities. Boston is also a political town, so I wanted to have something about politics. I prosecuted a particularly disturbing rape case. Some of it was inspired by that,” said Wechsler.

The author insisted Abby is not her alter ego. However, they do share some common traits like counting killers as a sleep aid.

“I wanted to write about a woman who was living in two different worlds. One of them was the world of crime. It was such a contrast to go from the D.A.’s Office and what all of that wrought to a regular life. That was what I wanted to bring out through Abby,” said Wechsler.

She recently submitted the manuscript for her third legal thriller featuring Abby that’s tentatively called “The Fens,” which is an area in Boston located near Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.

“I decided to do something about sports since Boston is such a sports town. The catcher for the Sox goes missing on opening day,” said Wechsler. “I touch on the issue of race, which has been a historical problem in Boston. I really think of Boston as a character in the book. Each book deals with something I find compelling about Boston.”

Wechsler is also a writer and producer for CBS’s “Bull,” which will return for a second season this fall. “Bull” centers around Dr. Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly), a psychologist and trial consultant who heads up the Trial Analysis Corporation, a jury consulting firm. Bull uses his skills to not only select the right jurors for his clients, but to help his clients’ attorneys decide the best type of argument that will win the jurors over.

“Bull” is loosely based on clinical psychologist Phil McGraw of “Dr. Phil” fame when he was a trial consultant early in his career before he started hosting his own talk show. In fact, McGraw co-created “Bull” and played an active role in the casting. Wechsler did get to meet Weatherly when she joined “Bull” in the latter half of its first season.

“He’s great. I spent a lot of time on-set with him. I was in New York 5-6 weeks. The whole cast is great,” she said.

Fellow novelist Hank Phillippi Ryan, author of the Jane Ryland series, really enjoys Wechsler’s work.

“Pam Wechsler is such a rock star. She does this amazing juggle of her dual worlds: using the hard-edged insider knowledge of her prosecutorial work to craft stellar crime fiction novels and riveting television. Funny and generous and incredibly talented, she’s my role model for living life to the fullest,” said Ryan. “And I have to say, her portrayal of Boston is wicked awesome!”

An alumna of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. and the Boston University School of Law, Wechsler worked on then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign in 1988. After the Dukakis campaign, she became an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County.

“The D.A.’s Office seemed the most interesting and impactful job I could find,” she said. “It was a sobering experience.”

In addition to working as a prosecutor, she also worked for the State Attorney General’s Office in Massachusetts for nearly five years, running the public corruption unit; and the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., working in the fraud section.

In 2000 when she was working at the attorney general’s office, she did a favor for a friend of a friend who wrote for “The Practice,” ABC’s 1997-2004 legal drama set in Boston. Wechsler offered her expertise in an effort to make the crime scenes more realistic.

“That’s how I learned about the world of television and writing,” she said.

Wechsler found it very appealing. During the evenings and the weekends, she was hard at work writing spec scripts. She was in L.A. for a grand jury in 2004 during her time with the DOJ when she was offered a job as a legal consultant for NBC’s “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.”

“Things move very quickly in television,” said Wechsler. “When I applied to the DOJ, it took months to get a response. (With ‘Trial by Jury’), this was, ‘Can you start next Tuesday?’ So I quit my job in D.C., packed up, and moved to L.A. Some thought it wasn’t a wise decision. At the time, it sounded crazy (because television is an) unstable, uncertain world.”

Although the series was cancelled after 13 episodes, she worked as a legal consultant on the “mother-ship called the original ‘Law & Order.’” Within a few months, she started writing for the show, which starred Detroit native/Wayne State University alumna S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Anita Van Buren. Her first episode was inspired by the Louise Woodward case. In 1997, Woodward – then a 19-year-old au pair from England – was convicted for the involuntary manslaughter of Matthew Eappen, an 8-month-old baby under her care in Newton, Mass.

Wechsler’s other credits include “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Conviction,” “Canterbury’s Law,” and “Doubt.” In fact, “Doubt,” a legal drama starring Katherine Heigl that aired on CBS in February, was pulled after the first two episodes due to low ratings. According to Wechsler, the remaining episodes are supposed to air this summer, but an actual date hasn’t been established as of yet. The cancellation of “Doubt” paved the way for her to join “Bull.”

When asked what medium she prefers writing in – novels or television – Wechsler has no preference.

“I prefer whatever I’m doing at the moment,” she said, then added with a laugh, “I’m very fickle.”

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