Denise Crawford never thought she would work for the “bad guys,” which is how she thought of lawyers who defended criminals. Fresh out of law school, she’d already clocked two years at the Attorney General’s office and had a job lined up at the Orange County District Attorney’s office — and that’s where she was going to stay.
That was the plan, at least.
“On my first day, [my supervisor] said, ‘There’s good news and there’s bad news,’” Crawford recalls. “‘The good news is welcome to the D.A.’s office. The bad news is we can’t hire you.’ I was completely crushed.”
Crawford was a hot commodity in the pool of aspiring lawyers. At the California Attorney General’s office, she had worked on some of the highest-profile cases in the state, including the notorious Three Strikes battle that eventually went before the U.S. Supreme Court (People v. Andrade). But it was 2002 and she’d stepped into the worst job market in 15 years. Due to a hiring freeze she was turned down for every prosecutorial job within a 100-mile radius.
Desperate, and with student loans and a mortgage looming, Crawford sent a cold-call letter to Jennifer Keller, one of the top criminal defense attorneys in town. Just a few days later, Keller enlisted her help in the defense of James Hwe, a 28-yearold man who spent 29 months in Orange County jail on charges of abusing and murdering his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter. After a two-week trial, Hwe was acquitted — and Crawford was hired.
“That was my first case as a lawyer — it was quite a dramatic introduction. And to have an innocent client? That’s pretty inspiring,” says Crawford, who is now 31.
The next day the district attorney called to offer Crawford a job, but it was too late — she had a taste for criminal defense and was hooked. “[When I was unemployed] I was like, wow, what am I going to do? All I know is criminal law and I don’t want to be a criminal defense attorney because ‘eeew, they’re slimy,’” she says. “That was a really ignorant way for me to think, but I was young and didn’t really have an understanding of what defense is all about.”
Crawford has set up a diverse practice in her Irvine office — everything from disturbing the peace to homicide — and she’s learned that most of the time, the people in criminal court are simply good people with problems. She’s been on the front lines of some of the most tragic stories to make Orange County headlines.
Take the case of University of California–Irvine professor Mark Warschauer, whose 10-month-old son died of heat stroke when Warschauer placed the sleeping infant in the back seat of his sedan one August morning and forgot to drop him off at day care before going to work. Crawford convinced prosecutors not to press charges because the death was accidental, but she couldn’t do anything to ease her client’s pain and remorse.
“Professor Warschauer adored that child in every way and we had all these examples. My gut was wrenching. It was just so tragic, and there was nothing we could do to make it better for him,” says Crawford. “When you’re seeing that kind of absolute devastation, it’s very hard to keep yourself separated. … I think it could have brought anybody to tears.”
Despite the grim nature of her cases, Crawford has developed a pretty thick skin. She has to if she wants to stay sane. “We all find ways of dealing with it. A lot of times it’s humor,” she says. “Over time you become kind of desensitized. I can go to a crime scene and look at a bloody mess on the carpet and that doesn’t really affect me that much. But maybe two years ago it would have.”
A natural performer, Crawford was a theater student in high school and a dancer in college but she gave up on both because she found them “intellectually empty.” And she has a competitive, no-nonsense side that belies her youthful appearance and friendly demeanor outside of court. “It is an exquisite burden in a way to look young and be doing serious cases because people assume that you don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s just not true,” she says. “When I’m arguing a motion or in trial, it’s on. It’s a battle. And I want to win.”