Spotlight: Kelly Siegler
It’s not about winning the case, it’s about seeking justice, as Kelly Siegler, the lead prosecutor on our true crime drama Cold Justice told us. We recently sat down with the veteran District Attorney to talk about her indomitable career in law enforcement, the best advice she’s received from the Cold Justice crew, and much more. Check out our interview below.
Q: What influenced you to pursue a career in criminal law?
A: In law school, I tried working at a civil law firm, and I found it horribly boring. I then started an internship in the domestic violence division of the Harris county DA’s office (Houston, TX) and fell in love with the job because I was really helping people, mostly battered women, and making big decisions. I felt like every day was a fun day to go to work.
Q: Tell me about your career. What was your trajectory as an attorney and how did you end up specializing in cold cases?
A: I went from being an intern at the DA’s office, and then I moved up the ladder pretty rapidly and started trying murder cases in about three and a half years. I was there for 21 years and tried around 65 murder cases and around 200 jury trials.
In the last 10 years I was there, I worked on a whole lot of cold cases. I was also an advisor to law enforcement, and we had 72 different law enforcement agencies in Harris county. I was the on-call advisor for 24 hours a day to a bunch of those. I got a bunch of calls from all over the state on cold cases; and these were circumstantial evidence cold cases, not the ones that are easily solved by DNA. I realized that there are a whole lot of those cases all over the place that are real close to being solved if someone would just focus their effort and time on them, and appreciate the duty of the circumstantial evidence case.
When I ran for DA in Harris County and lost that election in 2008, one night, I had an agent with WME who hooked me up with Dick [Wolf] and Tom (Thayer, executive producer) and I told them about my experience, and Dick immediately said, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great idea. We should sign that up, Tom.’ And then the rest is history.
Q: Were you instantly comfortable on camera?
A: No! That was hard to deal with because obviously none of us had ever done anything like that before. I think the good thing was that the camera and audio guys and the producers are so good at their jobs that they taught us how to do our jobs without even remembering that they were there. Even now we go places, and the local law enforcement that we work with, they’re very stressed out and nervous about having to do all this and we tell them, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. I promise you in a couple of hours, you’ll forget that you’re even doing it.’
Q: What specific things did they say to help you acclimate to being on camera?
A: To talk like nobody else is in the room. Even with a case, a camera guy would say, ‘Kelly, I’m still confused about this.’ It would make me think, ‘Well, if you’re confused, then I’m not doing a very good job.’ So I would say things in a different way or they would point out things that they liked, that they knew the audience would appreciate, so they’d tell us to say it again. In crime scenes, they would tell us where to stand so they could get the best shot. They’re always thinking in terms of the audience, so there’s a beautiful combination of me talking to local law enforcement and witnesses, and the camera and audio guys having taught me to remember that there’s an audience out there. I’ve learned a whole lot from them while working on this show too.
Q: What is the production process for the show? How involved are you in collaborating with the producers about what footage makes it into the final cuts?
A: Very involved because we have this ongoing discussion, or friction if you want to call it that, where their job is to tell the story. I’ve learned how to appreciate the need to tell the story because we want to keep staying on TV. I often want to show all these little pieces of evidence, but because we have 43 minutes and we have to save time for telling the story and all the emotional moments, a lot of the evidence doesn’t make it onto the show. We get into some good discussions about that. Sometimes I’m sure I drive them crazy, and then there’s times they drive me crazy. That’s an ongoing process.
Q: How are the cases shown on the show selected? Do you suggest them to producers?
A: We have a team lead, a wonderful leader named Ashley Graybow (co-executive producer) who is in charge of finding cases all across the country. You know, most places in the south have counties that are led by Sheriff’s departments, but up in the Northeast, there’s mostly police departments. It’s a lot easier to find cases when you have counties, and Ashley and her team have called, oh my God, every county in this country probably three or four times by now looking for cases. We never work on a case unless law enforcement wants us. We never just go ride into town and say we’re going to work on your case. Law enforcement has to invite us in so that we have access to their entire files.
A lot of times family members email me asking if I can work on their loved one’s case, and I have to tell them we can’t just do that. Oftentimes, local law doesn’t want anyone to help because it might be the sheriff’s nephew who killed my daughter. I never realized how many cases there are out there where local law doesn’t want to share their file for all kinds of reasons like that.
Unless you have the real file, the real evidence or access to it, you’re not doing a real investigation. So we have to be invited by local law, and the family has to want us. So if we check all those boxes, I read the case and decide if I think we can solve it. And then the network has to bless it too.
Q: Does the law prevent certain subject matters from being filmed?
A: No, not really. The only time that the law gets in the way is sometimes we get cases from local law where there are a whole lot of gang members, and they’re not going to talk. The only way they ever talk is if they’re locked up in prison and they can make a deal, but we can’t make a deal in our time frame. It takes years to get a deal with a lawyer to sign off and all that kind of good stuff. We can’t make a deal quick enough to ever make a gang member want to talk. So pretty much all gang cases from the outset are never going to work.
Q: Have there been any particularly memorable episodes or cases that stand out to you?
A: A lot of them. When I think of different cases, different things come to mind with each one for all kinds of different reasons. I think the most frustrating things to me are the ones where the charges should have been filed by now, if not a long time ago; I know it, the cops that worked on the case know it, and the family is still sitting there with their hearts breaking because nobody will do their job.
Q: How do you handle working with such intense and tragic stories?
A: Well, I started doing it when I was very young, and I think that working in this kind of job makes you jaded and hard. And I curse too much. I don’t have time to put up with any bullshit or worry about hurting your feelings or spinning it.
Q: Despite publicizing your work in criminal justice on television, what are some common misconceptions people have about your job?
A: I want cops to say, ‘That girl knows what she’s doing.’ And the other thing is, I don’t want anybody to ever say, ‘She turned TV.’ I want to think that when this is all over with, people are going to know that we stayed true. Our investigations were real, and we never turned into the TV. It always stayed a real, true show that actually produced real results in the real world and made a lot of people happier.
Q: Why do you think this subject matter makes such compelling drama for viewers?
A: Our main audience is women, and I think that’s because women are more nosy. They’re more inquisitive. We have this running joke with our crew that when we go to see a husband and a wife who witnessed something from a case 20 or 30 years ago, every time the wife is going to remember everything that happened and the husband will go, ‘Well, honey, I forgot all that.’ Women have better memories, and they’re more curious. They’re the ones that watch these kinds of shows, and I think that’s what makes these kinds of shows continue to live on TV.
Q: Last question, you have a very impressive reputation for winning cases. How much does that influence you from case to case? Is that a burden to shoulder or does it give you confidence?
A: So in my old job, they’d always say, ‘She’s tried 65 cases and never lost.’ I hate that damn stat because it makes it sound like I care about that. It only came up when I ran for DA, and now I’m stuck with it.
The one thing I do not want people to do is to think that it matters if you lose the case. If you’re a murder victim’s family, they don’t care if there’s a DA on their jury trial, they want their damn DA to file the charge on who killed their brother and do something. They don’t even care if they lose the trial, but at least file the charge and investigate the case and take it on and try. They just want somebody out there to be trying to do something to get them justice.