WLALA Featured Changemaker – Susan J. DeWitt
by Andrea Schoor
Susan DeWitt is a career prosecutor, project leader, mentor, lecturer, and changemaker extraordinaire. On any given day, you might find Susan working on a violent-crime indictment, mentoring students at a career-mentoring lunch, checking in on the tennis clinic she started at Leuders Park in Compton, planning a criminal justice program for WLALA, or giving (and getting) advice and support to a colleague down the hall at the United States Attorney's Office. As demonstrated by Susan's docket, Susan's brand of public service involves more than just trying cases.
After graduating from Georgetown University Law School, Susan started her legal career as a judicial clerk for the Honorable John G. Davies of the United States District Court for the Central District of California. More than thirty years later, she still considers him a valued friend and role model. After clerking, Susan spent nine years litigating complex business disputes (first, at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, then at White & Case), including lawsuits arising out of the sale of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. In 1997, Susan's career took a decidedly different path when she joined the United States Attorney's Office.
During her now-more-than twenty years at the United States Attorney's Office, Susan has held a number of leadership positions and prosecuted hundreds of cases involving crimes ranging from organized crime, money laundering, fraud, and murder, to national security and terrorism. She has served as Deputy Chief in the National Security Section, Senior Litigation Counsel in the Violent and Organized Crime Section, and as both the Acting Executive Assistant and Special Counsel to the United States Attorney.
Among the numerous complex and high-profile cases Susan has prosecuted, one involved a seven-month trial of an organized-crime ring responsible for seven murders, international money-laundering, and an attempted escape from custody. After a notable victory for the United States, Susan immediately went back to trial, prosecuting a co-defendant on the same charges. After an eleven-week trial, the case resulted in yet another victory for the United States. Another of Susan's eminent prosecutions involved trying a former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps interrogator for violations of Iranian export sanctions. And recently, in the first terrorism case to go to trial in the Central District of California, Susan spent six weeks prosecuting members of a terrorist cell for conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. Again Susan obtained a resounding victory for the United States, although Susan is the first to give credit to and point out that she has had co-counsel on all of her big cases, as well as critical support from law enforcement officers, support staff and others.
During her twenty years in the office, Susan also has taken on many challenges beyond her leadership roles and prosecuting cases. For example, Susan served as an intermittent legal advisor in Nigeria as part of a Department of Justice program designed to help Nigerian prosecutors, investigators, and government officials combat financial crime and public corruption in Nigeria. Susan has lectured and led trainings all over the world (including Nigeria, Hong Kong, Uzbekistan and Russia) on matters of international importance, including public corruption, transnational organized-crime, national security and terrorism, human trafficking, financial crime, and international legal cooperation. She also has conducted trainings at the Department of Justice's prestigious National Advocacy Center in South Carolina.
Susan was selected to serve for two years on detail to the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. at the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. During that detail, Susan worked closely with the Attorney General's Advisory Committee (during Attorney General Eric Holder's tenure), and the Civil Rights and Terrorism Subcommittees on a number of national civil rights and national security initiatives, including in the areas of civil rights enforcement training, human trafficking, and the Department of Justice's enhanced Muslim-engagement and outreach efforts.
In her current role as Senior Litigation Counsel, Susan has been instrumental in leading a pilot violent-crime reduction program in Compton. The program is designed to promote interagency and community policing efforts, and to address violent crime in and around Compton strategically. As part of the initiative, Susan works closely with the Compton Sheriff's Department, school police, and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the United States Marshal's Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The program aims to reduce violent crime through collaborative enforcement efforts, specialized training and technical advice, as well as by supporting youth-crime prevention programs and community engagement. One of the many successful programs Susan spearheaded in Compton is a youth tennis clinic through which, along with the Pete Brown Scholarship Fund, the Southern California Tennis Association, the National Junior Tennis League, and the City of Compton Parks and Recreation Department, approximately 10-30 youth are provided with free tennis equipment and coaching twice a week for six weeks, in four clinics a year.
Susan has been honored more than fifteen times for her legal excellence and dedicated service, including twice being named a California Attorney of the Year by the California Lawyer. Susan is a valued board member of WLALA, currently co-chairing the Criminal Justice Committee. She also is on the Board of City Hearts, a non-profit whose mission is to provide arts education and experiences, including theater and photography, to youth in underserved Southern California communities, including Compton. Additionally, in her spare time, Susan has made it a priority to mentor newer lawyers and Assistant United States Attorneys as they progress through the office and beyond. Many of these attorneys credit Susan for the mentoring she has provided them.
This summary highlights only a fraction of the work Susan has done for Los Angeles, for women, for youth, and for the nation. Here, in her own words, Susan tells us more about herself.
The youth tennis clinic you started in Compton is wonderfully successful. The parents and the participants love it. What inspired you to start the program, and what has been your biggest surprise?
Under the leadership of former United States Attorney Andre Birotté Jr., the United States Attorney's Office adopted Jim Gilliam Park, in Los Angeles, as part of the Mayor's Gang Reduction and Youth Development Summer Night Lights program. A group from the office would go to the park once a week during the summer to help with activities for the kids, such as tennis, basketball, face-painting, and arts and crafts. I usually volunteered at the grill as chief burger and hotdog flipper. During these nights, I met some of the people who support tennis at Jim Gilliam Park and saw first-hand how popular tennis is with the kids.
I later reached out to those same people and asked if they would help me start a clinic in Compton. Compton, being the one-time home of the Williams sisters, it seemed like the perfect fit. My only request was that I wanted it to be a year-long program, and not just in the summer. They quickly and completely embraced my request. The rest, as they say, is history. I am constantly surprised by how many people are generous with their time and support, without which the program would not be a success.
The work you do for the Compton violent-crime reduction program and with City Hearts has the common thread of being focused on youth and prevention, which is different from your work as a prosecutor. Has your prosecutorial work influenced your work on prevention initiatives, and vice versa?
I believe the mission of the United States Attorney's Office is to make our communities safer. While this important goal primarily is achieved by prosecuting crimes, crime prevention also is a critical part of the equation. One of the best ways to prevent crime is to provide our youth with positive experiences that put them on a path toward a constructive and meaningful future.
Do you have a passion for sports and/or art yourself?
I was lucky, growing up, to be exposed to sports, theater, camping, fishing, scuba diving, and all sorts of outdoor activities – each of which helped to make me a healthier, happier, and more well-rounded person and all of which no doubt helped keep me out of trouble.
Your exceptional history of public service has been noted by many organizations and individuals over the years. What inspires you to do the work you do, and who is in the village that supports you?
I know it sounds corny but my parents were the ones driving me and my high school debate teammates to tournaments, coaching little league, watching endless softball games, volunteering for the PTA, and even taking in a friend to live with us who was going through hard family times. I was very fortunate growing up with a lot of love and support. Giving back to my community and to those less fortunate just seems like the right thing to do. Along the way, I have been inspired, supported and encouraged by so many people - I know I would not be where I am today without that village.
You are a mentor and role model for many. Have you had mentors or role models during your career, and why do you think mentoring and being mentored is important?
My brothers and I were the first in our family to go to college and then later graduate school. I am also the first lawyer in my family. In short – I had no idea what I was doing and made many mistakes along the way. I was often afraid or didn't know how to ask for help. But I also had many role models who ended up showing me the way at critical points in my career. If I can help just one person to avoid some pitfalls along the way and make the road to success a little easier, it is well worth the effort.
There is a fabulous video published by the Compton Unified School District featuring some of the community outreach that you have done with the United States Marshals Service in Compton elementary schools, as part of your work on behalf of the United States Attorney's Office: https://youtu.be/rS0h3MQwZkQ. Even in the face of competition from cutting-edge remote-control cars from the Mobile Command Center, at the end of the video (1:30) a young woman says "When I grow up, I would like to be a lawyer!" How do you feel when you hear young women say they want to become attorneys?
It makes me proud.
What advice do you give to female attorneys who are just beginning their careers, and does it differ from the advice you give to male attorneys?
Don't be afraid to ask for help. You will be surprised at how often the answer is yes. Be true to yourself and your values. Don't let mistakes keep you from pursuing your goals. Making mistakes is how I have learned some of my most valuable lessons in life and those lessons have helped me succeed in the end. Pick yourself up and get back in the game. Although my advice is the same for men and women, for women I would especially add – be brave and you will find your calling and your voice.
Andrea Schoor sits on WLALA’s Board of Governors and co-chairs the business development committee. Ms. Schoor is Senior Counsel at Allen Matkins.