For such a high-profile job, District Attorney Steve Cooley is a low-key guy.
He's so unassuming that even after being elected to a third consecutive term he's one of the least recognized public figures in Los Angeles. Unlike counterparts in other cities, he leaves high-profile cases to his most talented attorneys and doesn't grandstand by holding press conferences on courthouse steps.
But by going after fugitive film director Roman Polanski, medical marijuana dispensaries and Michael Jackson's doctor in the past year, Cooley's stepped into a wider spotlight. The glare has brought some criticism, but also the attention needed for his run for state attorney general this year.
For most of his career, Cooley, 62, has been a behind-the-scenes player best known as an effective manager. The AG's job appeals to him not because it would elevate his reach in prosecuting crime, but because he could be the architect of public safety policy.
In a city known for serial killers, widespread gang violence and celebrities behaving badly, Cooley considers other types of cases his biggest victories: busting corrupt public officials, cracking unsolved cases with DNA, and using the case of a cop killer to successfully lobby Mexico to stop shielding criminals from being returned to the United States for prosecution.
"There are seriously evil people who try to evade our laws by fleeing the country," Cooley said. "We created an atmosphere that the Mexico courts changed their ruling and something that changed history for the United States."
The son of an FBI agent father and homemaker mother, Cooley was a reserve police officer for 5 1/2 years while attending law school. He started at the DA's office as a law clerk in 1973 and then made his mark heading up the prosecutor's office in the rapidly growing Antelope Valley about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of downtown Los Angeles.
Cooley's work ethic and experience with cases ranging from welfare fraud to hardcore gangs paid off in 2000 when he was elected to lead the nation's biggest district attorney's office.
Those who know the married father of two, whose stately profile bears a slight resemblance to the late Alfred Hitchcock, say he's blunt and decisive. Critics from inside and outside the office argue he's unwilling to compromise once he makes a decision and focuses too narrowly on certain issues, such as medical marijuana.
He's been credited for tipping the office's makeup toward women and minorities. But he's also been dogged by a discrimination lawsuit filed by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys that claims Cooley and other county officials retaliated against several prosecutors for joining the union.
While a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing him from taking action against union members, Cooley said the claims are false and he believes he will prevail at trial.
By and large, prosecutors and defense attorneys praise Cooley, though the latter may be wary to criticize someone who can shape the fate of their clients.
Polanski's lawyers are among the loudest critics for attempts to bring the 76-year-old director back from Switzerland to be sentenced for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. In court papers, defense lawyers accuse Cooley of playing politics, ignoring possible prosecutorial and judicial misconduct in the case and misleading the Swiss government.
He's brushed those complaints aside, along with scorn from some in Hollywood who said Polanski should no longer be prosecuted and others who claim the office didn't really try to catch the fugitive after he fled in 1978.
"We have been so consistent about Polanski and wanting him apprehended," Cooley said. "We will pursue this until it ends."
The case against Dr. Conrad Murray, who has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter in Jackson's death, may capture the most attention for the office since Cooley's predecessor, Gil Garcetti, failed to convict O.J. Simpson in the killings of his wife and a friend.
So far, Cooley hasn't spoken publicly about the Murray case, which is scheduled for a hearing Monday. But his office's efforts to negotiate the doctor's surrender led to an internal dispute with police, who wanted to arrest Murray and bring him to court in handcuffs.
Cooley said he doesn't approach celebrity cases any different from others his office handles, noting that if they go to a jury "it's a force of nature you can't control."
His office has a mixed record with such cases. Record producer Phil Spector was convicted at his second trial of killing actress Lana Clarkson. Cooley caused a stir but refused to apologize when he called jurors "stupid" for acquitting actor Robert Blake in the killing of his wife.
Defense lawyer Mark Geragos, who has represented Winona Ryder and Chris Brown, said Cooley's evenhanded and principled with celebrities.
"He's the gold standard for handling high-profile cases," Geragos said. "I deal with prosecutors all over the country, and in my mind his office is at the top of their game in these types of cases."
In an era when prosecutors get elected by being tough on crime, Cooley is the first DA elected to three terms in L.A. since 1936 and he's done it by diverging at times from some popular punitive policies.
He alienated himself from other prosecutors in California for not seeking life sentences for repeat felons unless their so-called third strike involves a serious or violent crime.
His opposition to Jessica's law, which put tighter controls on sex offenders, on the grounds that it was not well crafted has proven prescient. Though the law passed overwhelmingly, it's led to confusion and disputes over who should monitor sex offenders, making it largely ineffective.
Cooley's more in step with his peers in opposing a ballot initiative this fall that would legalize marijuana use.
But backing an anti-pot platform, along with a recent push to prosecute pot dispensary owners who profit selling the drug, could backfire. Public polls show support for the measure, which would go much further than the law passed by voters allowing use of pot for medical reasons.
Cooley understands how much is at stake given the growing medical marijuana movement across the nation. But having more pot shops in Los Angeles than Starbucks coffee shops doesn't sit well with him.
"We're the petri dish. Whether we succeed or fail is critical," he said. "It's a very dynamic moment for society."