Legal analyst and author Lis Wiehl makes Santa Barbara her home
Lis Wiehl remembers one of her “Perry Mason” moments.
It came during a trial in which she was a Seattle federal prosecutor trying a bank robbery case.
Before walking into the courtroom, Ms. Wiehl did her homework. She looked carefully at the bank surveillance photos and saw that the robber was missing his trigger finger when he held his gun.
“It was amazing. It was one of those ‘Perry Mason’ moments,” Ms. Wiehl told the News-Press. “I lifted his hand in front of the jury, and the trigger finger was missing.”
Ms. Wiehl won the conviction and points to it as an example of how good legal work is knowing the facts and knowing how to tell the story about them.
Ms. Wiehl, who moved to Santa Barbara last November from New York City, has learned to tell true stories so well that she’s a New York Times bestselling author of 19 books. She also has been a law professor and a legal analyst for several TV networks.
Now she’s a News-Press columnist. Her “Wiehl of Justice” column debuted recently in this paper and will explore local cases.
Ms. Wiehl’s love for law and order started early in life. Her dad, Richard Wiehl, was an FBI agent.
“What I really remember is when we were in Fort Worth, Texas, he took me to the FBI headquarters,” recalled Ms. Wiehl, who lived there but spent most of her youth in Yakima, Wash. “I was just a little kid, and they had the ‘Most Wanted’ pictures. He was showing me that these were the really bad guys and said, ‘That’s what I do; I hunt down the bad guys.’
“He became a federal prosecutor after he left the FBI,” Ms. Wiehl said. “He would tell stories; they were real stories about cops and robbers. I grew up with that.”
Ms. Wiehl also grew up with a love for writing. That wasn’t too surprising considering her mother, Inga Wiehl, was a college English teacher who immigrated from Denmark.
In fact, Ms. Wiehl’s first career choice wasn’t the law. The graduate of West Valley High School in Yakima wanted to become a journalist and studied at Columbia University in New York, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She went on to get her master’s in literature at the University of Queensland in Australia.
But the law and its stories enticed her, and she enrolled in Harvard Law School, where she earned her juris doctor degree in 1987.
“When you go to law school, you get these big case books that you can barely put in your backpack,” Ms. Wiehl said. “These were stories about people, about things that have happened to people, usually things that were bad, and how we as a society try to remediate and make them whole again.”
After Harvard, Ms. Wiehl worked for the Seattle private law firm Perkins Coie before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle as a prosecutor. She said she became dedicated to discovering the truth and finding justice for victims. “It was really important to me and was part of my family’s values.”
She said the courtroom is just 5% of what a prosecutor does. She said the rest involved working with FBI agents and doing all the behind-the-scenes work that jurors never hear about.
“It all comes together in the courtroom when you try to tell a story,” Ms. Wiehl said.
After working as a federal prosecutor, Ms. Wiehl went on to Washington, D.C., where she served as a counsel for Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee during the hearings leading up to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
“As you might imagine, it was a very sobering experience, to see these mechanisms of impeachment — which we don’t use very often, thank goodness,” Ms. Wiehl said.
“I’m from a legal background,” she said. “It was my first foray into where legal meets political. It was eye opening.”
She noted that Democrats and Republicans alike would quickly cast their votes, unless the press and cameras were there. “If the press was there, everybody would be grandstanding and would have to use their five minutes. This was high politics, rushing out to get on the camera for the 6 o’clock news.”
From 1995 to 2001, Ms. Wiehl was back in Seattle as a law professor at the University of Washington, where she ran the Trial Advocacy Program.
She went on to become a legal analyst for networks such as CNN, CBS, NPR, NBC and the Fox News Channel.
“I love it. It’s fun for me to take a story and break it down into its parts, then communicate how it affects people,” she said. She added that television poses the challenge of summarizing the details quickly but accurately.
“You’re coming into somebody’s home, their kitchen, their living room, their bedroom,” she said. “They’re giving you the privilege of hearing what you have to say. You’d better get your facts right.
“I don’t mind if people disagree with my opinion,” Ms. Wiehl said. “I don’t want to be wrong with the facts. I have to get those right.”
Her first case as a TV legal analyst was the California trial that resulted in Scott Peterson’s 2004 conviction for the murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son.
She also covered the Santa Maria trial of Michael Jackson, in which the singer was accused of molesting 13-year-old cancer patient Gavin Arvizo. Mr. Jackson was acquitted in 2005.
Ms. Wiehl also has commented on TV about a variety of U.S. Supreme Court cases.
“My duty was to explain the cases, translate them and tell you what they mean to you,” she said. “It was a real potpourri of cases. I loved it.”
Her first book, “Winning Every Time: How to Use Skills of a Lawyer in the Trials of Your Life,” was published in 2005 .
For her 2020 book, “Hunting the Unabomber: The FBI, Ted Kaczynski, and the Capture of America’s Most Notorious Domestic Terrorist,” Ms. Wiehl interviewed Patrick Webb. He was a retired FBI agent in Montana who worked on the case and told her that the case wasn’t solved by just one person, despite what was reported in a Discovery Channel documentary.
“From him, I got the real nuts and bolts of what happened,” Ms. Wiehl said.
For her 2019 book “Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter,” Ms. Wiehl interviewed a key figure in the case.
“I was the only press person allowed at the last hearing for Tex Watson before the book was written,” Ms. Wiehl said. “Tex Watson was the one who actually committed the murders. Manson said, ‘Go out and do it.’ Tex was the one who carried out the command.
“If we were at a table having coffee, that’s how close I was to Tex Watson,” Ms. Wiehl said. “I was just watching this man and listening to him, trying to figure out why he did it, what led this God-fearing guy from Texas to commit these heinous crimes. He said, ‘Charlie gave us love. I needed a job, and Charlie gave me a job.’
“It was crazy,” Ms. Wiehl said.
Ms. Wiehl, the single mother of two adult children (a daughter in San Francisco and a son now traveling in the Pacific Northwest), said she rented a place in Santa Barbara last summer before moving here permanently in November from the Big Apple.
“I was in New York and was suddenly an empty nester,” Ms. Wiehl said. “My kids were gone, and I could write from anywhere. I always wanted to come back to the West Coast. I started my career here.
“My brother is in the Los Angeles area. My daughter is in San Francisco, and she said to me, ‘Mom, you’ve got to look at Santa Barbara. It’s my favorite place in the world. I think you’re going to love it.’”
Ms. Wiehl, who explained her move to Santa Barbara was delayed by the pandemic, said she fell in love with the South Coast and its mountains and ocean. “People are nice. It’s a great place to be.”
Lis Wiehl’s 2020 book, “Hunting the Unabomber: The FBI, Ted Kaczynski, and the Capture of America’s Most Notorious Domestic Terrorist,” and her other books are available for purchase through links at her website. See liswiehlbooks.com.