How I Transitioned From Law to Media
By: Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi
A Voice for Victims and Justice for Families
Long before I earned my JD from Brooklyn Law School, I knew that I wanted to do some type of work that felt meaningful. The work didn’t need to be grand, but something that would hopefully have a positive impact on the world. I also wanted a career that was exciting and would capture my interest throughout the many work hours in the day. It came down to two choices: an educator or a lawyer. Both teaching and a life in law captured all that I wanted to do; careers that could have a positive impact and would also be exciting in their ever-evolving nature. Ultimately, I decided that the law was the right course for me.
So I enrolled in law school, and from the very first semester, I realized that criminal law would be my focus, and becoming a prosecutor was my path. Why a prosecutor? I believe that both the prosecution and the defense hold important roles in our system and that each is needed for balance and true justice. For me, it was the idea of accountability for criminal actions and the overall nature of the work that initially drew me to being a prosecutor. As a prosecutor, I found my ultimate home once I eventually got to homicide. Being a homicide prosecutor was challenging, exciting, and deeply meaningful. But my greatest motivator was the victims and their families. The work enabled me to give a voice to people who had none. It also hopefully helped bring some measure of closure to their families and other loved ones left behind in murder’s wake. Over the years, I’ve carried the tragic stories of these victims with me. My desire to help ensure that their voices will never disappear, ultimately led me down a path I hadn’t anticipated.
“Being a homicide prosecutor was challenging, exciting, and deeply meaningful. But my greatest motivator was the victims and their families. The work enabled me to give a voice to people who had none.”
- Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi
Twenty Years as a Brooklyn ADA: A Formidable Impact
After I earned my JD in the mid-1990s, I decided to stay in Brooklyn and to work at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. This dynamic, culturally rich borough with its amazing mix of people from all backgrounds has always appealed to me. As a homicide prosecutor, what better place could there be to make my own small contribution to the city that I love? (Yes, Brooklyn was formerly a city all its own.)
I still remember the first case I tried on my own. I was not yet a homicide prosecutor; rather, I was in a felony bureau, working on a home invasion case. It was a story I’d only seen before in movies, but now here it was, in its raw, true life form. A knock at the door for a delivery was no delivery at all. That delivery person was actually a felon who bound an entire family: Mother and child were separated from the father, who was also restrained. They each waited and listened, while the sounds of their home being ransacked roared, hoping the attack would end there. I’ll never forget hearing the father talk about the helplessness he felt, separated from his family and powerless to aid them; he didn’t know if his wife and child, himself, or all of them would end up dead. To hear them recount the crime, and to know that their lives had been forever altered, was a truly humbling experience. I saw justice in a new light after that; I saw how it impacts those affected by crime. Justice might give them some relief from the terror they experienced, and then hopefully help them to slowly move forward. As the prosecutor, that was my goal. I already understood the importance of accountability and following the evidence to wherever it leads. But from that case onward, it was the survivors and victims that drove me most. Working on their behalf was what I’d always want to do.
There have been many subsequent cases that have profoundly affected me and shaped my path. One was a cold case I had been assigned, but did not have the opportunity to try. A 16-year-old girl, Chanel Petro-Nixon, was cruelly strangled to death in 2006. Her remains were discovered in a trash bag. Whenever I think of that case, I think of her mom, forced to bear the horrific burden of losing her child to murder. Year after year, she would come to the office for updates and be told that while there was a suspect, there was not enough evidence to charge. I can still vividly see the look in her eyes as she heard the news. Strong, determined, accepting but mostly, incredible pain. The case progressed slowly. It wasn’t until 2016 that there was finally sufficient evidence to indict someone for Chanel’s murder.
Chanel never had the opportunity to build a life for herself. She never got the chance to go to college, forge a career for herself, raise a family, or live out any of the dreams she undoubtedly had. She — and her family — were robbed of that. And it is the quiet pain in her mother’s eyes that I will never forget.
Another case involving a victim who lost their life far too early was that of Kawane Buckner. On his 22nd birthday, Kawane was visiting his brother at his Brooklyn barbershop when a robbery occurred. Kawane’s brother was shot in the chest, but survived. Kawane was not as fortunate. Kawane’s death absolutely destroyed his family. His brother in particular felt considerable guilt for having survived when Kawane did not.
As a key eyewitness, the testimony of Kawane’s brother was integral during the trial. I could tell it was difficult for him to give testimony, yet he never wavered in his intent to seek justice for his beloved brother. His determination added to my own, and helped me continue to press on throughout the trial. Although the conviction of Kawane’s killer brought some closure, his death caused irreparable loss to the Buckner family.
It is never easy to sit with victims’ families and hear their heartbreak, yet it’s what drives me to strive for justice on their behalf. It’s the job of the prosecutor to evaluate evidence objectively, and follow whatever path it leads. Yet, behind every file are people: the victim, the family and loved ones who are left behind and suffering.
One more of the many cases that stay with me is that of Carol Simon-Hayes. In 2007, Carol was taking her nine-year-old son to swimming practice. Carol was a nurse and that evening, she became a victim of senseless violence. She was going back to her apartment to retrieve something forgotten while her son waited in the car. Just steps from her building, she was caught in crossfire as two men started a gun battle on the crowded street. She was only 35 when she died. Her son had to grow up without her.
I often think of that little boy, now a man, whom I would meet in the office and the courthouse. He was forced to endure the unimaginable at such a young age, yet he always had a smile on his face. It was ironically that smile that most broke my heart. He lost so much yet always met me with a smile.
At trial the two defendants (both men in the gun battle were charged) were convicted. A legal technicality caused a necessary retrial of one of the defendants, but justice again prevailed 10 years after Carol’s death. A letter from her son was read at the final sentencing hearing. In part, it read: “It hurts that I will never see my mother’s face again. She was my best friend. She was my world.”
Carrying the Weight of Unresolved Cases and Coping with Burnout
No matter how strong the evidence of a case seems, there are never any guarantees in the courtroom. If criminal law was a formula, X + Y = Z, all that would be needed is to produce enough evidence to satisfy the equation and generate a conviction. Yet, prosecutors know there is an additional human factor as well — the jury. At the conclusion of every trial, I would hold my breath alongside the victim’s family: Would the jury see the evidence the way I did? Did I present it clearly enough? And then we waited, always hoping for the outcome that would bring closure.
After nearly 20 years of working as a homicide prosecutor in Brooklyn, the cases were beginning to exact their toll on me. Burnout loomed. I continued to do the work the same way, but it took more out of me each time. It only makes sense that being faced with such tragedy each and every day impacts all of us who work in these fields. But there can be no slacking in matters as grave as homicide investigations. There is so much at stake, for both sides, that prosecutors need to do everything in our power to ensure we get it right. No one enters this line of work thinking it will be easy, but the longer you do it, the heavier the weight becomes. Each case deserves our all, yet that was starting to take more and more energy. I continued to love the work but started to think it might be time for a change.
The Victims Need to Be Heard; I Could Provide the Platform
No matter how difficult the job was, I had never before thought about doing anything else. I thought that I’d be a prosecutor until the day I retired. Later on in my career, however, members of the media began to request interviews about my cases. Initially, I was hesitant. But then former District Attorney Charles Hynes (he was the District Attorney at the time) gave me a different perspective. He told me that it would be beneficial for people to know exactly what we do and why we do it. He said that hearing it from us (actual prosecutors) was better than letting others speak for us. That resonated with me. I liked the idea of talking about these cases and the various issues that crop up along the way. The prospect of educating people about the justice system firsthand was also exciting for me. Finally, I realized that this was also another way to give the victims and their families a voice.
What started with interviews about my own cases soon turned to legal commentary on other current crimes. Along the way, I realized that I wanted to be the one asking the questions. As prosecutors, that is what we do… Therein lies the transition to a career in media after having spent so many years in courtrooms. It seemed to me a natural shift. It was a way to stay involved with a world I care so much about (homicide cases and advocating for the victims of crime), learn something new with the career shift, and also downsize my stress. I care about my work in the media and want to do my best, but I definitely find this new line of work less stressful. I’ve been fortunate and had success as a homicide prosecutor. To have that success now help to provide a platform for the voices of victims, their families, and those that work on their behalf, is something that I am grateful for. Although not every case results in a conviction and the justice system is not perfect, I believe that providing insight into this world has multiple purposes: It can help foster confidence in the many good parts of our system, and — where there are issues — spur meaningful dialogue and potential change. Furthermore, by transitioning to a career in media, I still utilize my skills and knowledge, and I continue to serve victims, albeit in a very different way.
The Work I Now Do: Podcast and Television Host
Currently, I am the host and co-executive producer of the television show True Conviction, and the co-host of the true crime podcast Anatomy of Murder. For these programs, I decided to partner with executive producer Scott Weinberger. I met him initially during an interview. Getting to know him better over the years, I saw that he has real integrity and that we are like minded in many ways. Who better to work with than someone like that?
One of the most difficult aspects is picking the next case to highlight. Every story is worth telling, but we choose cases with an eye toward varying the content of the shows. Every story we feature is thoroughly researched. We want to get it right. Being unscripted requires a deeper understanding of the facts of each case, but that also gives us a better understanding of them and advances the conversation.
I’m often asked whether it’s difficult to interview victims and their family members. Strangely, it’s second nature to me. I’ve found that most people appreciate the direct approach. I think my comfort with the conversation helps put them at ease too. They want to discuss the loss of their loved ones because it’s a way to keep their memory alive. That’s the way I see it too.
The ultimate goal of my television show and podcast is to empower victims and their family members, and highlight the work done on their behalf by law enforcement officers, prosecutors and others who work on these challenging cases. We strive to give insight about the many paths to justice. Every show is a little different because every case is unique.
These Are Their Stories
Although I am no longer a prosecutor, I will always wear that hat. I still consider myself an advocate for victims and their families. I’ve never lost my passion for justice and for giving a voice to those who have none. It’s still difficult to reflect on the lives lost in senseless acts of violence and the impact on their families, yet I feel that telling the stories of these victims is a way to honor their memory.
Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi is a seasoned NYC homicide prosecutor with over two decades of experience as a prosecutor, Bureau Chief, and Chief of Trials with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. She is also the founder of Forseti Media, co-executive producer and host of the TV series, True Conviction, and creator and co-host of the true-crime podcast, Anatomy of Murder. With a passion for victim advocacy, Anna-Sigga brings attention to criminal law and the varying paths to justice involved.