Two Johnnies, One Law Office

February 11, 2020 | By Eve Tolpa

From left to right: Joseph Lanuti (SF14) and Dylan Hitchcock-Lopez (SF14)

When Joseph Lanuti (SF14) and Dylan Hitchcock-Lopez (SF14) left New Mexico with St. John’s undergraduate degrees in 2014, they had no way of knowing they’d reunite five years later.

That’s exactly what happened, however, in September 2019, when the two newly minted lawyers started working in the office of Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s 26th district attorney—known nationwide for his progressive legal philosophy.

Lanuti first met Krasner in September 2018, at the start of his final year at Georgetown University Law Center, where Krasner was visiting to recruit young lawyers. “His views on criminal prosecution were novel for a district attorney, but at the same time they also seemed like plain common sense,” says Lanuti.

“He talked about how we have an issue of mass incarceration in this country, and the old approach of simply throwing the book at everyone who commits a crime, no matter how petty, is not making us any safer. He also talked about how we need to view drug addiction as less of a criminal justice problem and more of a public health issue. People call this ‘progressive prosecution,’ but I think it’s more just reasonable prosecution.”

Hitchcock-Lopez was drawn to Krasner’s office for similar reasons.

He completed his law degree in 2019 from Washington University in St. Louis. There he had an internship at ArchCity Defenders, which defends tenants’ rights through what is known as holistic advocacy. Of the population he served, Hitchcock-Lopez says, “Nobody has just one issue. There are welfare, social services, landlord-tenant issues, all woven together. You don’t treat the symptom but think about the whole person.”

At ArchCity Defenders, he became interested in trial law and began to consider a career in criminal justice. He was fascinated by the conversation around structural racism, something he hadn’t encountered to a significant degree in high school or college. He realized that systemic factors in housing and zoning—the history of redlining, the home loan process—often lead to specific results, like residential segregation.

“That got me thinking about systems,” he says. “Individuals are existing within systems that are predisposed to have certain outcomes.” While volunteering as a field coordinator for Wesley Bell, now the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, Hitchcock-Lopez learned about policies related to progressive prosecution and “the role that elected prosecutors play in shaping justice.” That led naturally to an interest in Krasner’s career.

Despite his position in Krasner’s office, Lanuti didn’t always hold his current view on “reasonable prosecution.” During his first two years at Georgetown, he worked at a prosecutor’s office, and while he loved the fast pace of the courtroom and the cases he worked on, “I also had a very black-and-white stance [on] crime and ‘criminals’ at that time.”

That changed when he joined a criminal justice clinic during his third year of law school. “I was representing these ‘criminals,’” Lanuti says. “I thought that the worst part of the job would be interacting with my clients. I found the opposite to be true.”

He continues: “The thing that frustrated me the most was how the criminal justice system would often ensnare those with mental illnesses or drug addictions. I am very thankful for the opportunity to represent these individuals, because I would have had a very different outlook on crime and punishment without them.”

It’s not hard to see the ideological parallels between the Johnnie seminar table and the urge to rethink America’s criminal justice system. For example, Lanuti says Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics “had a profound influence on modern law and modern conceptions of justice, and gave me somewhat of a push towards law school.”

But the way Hitchcock-Lopez decided to pursue law was “not very romantic.”

He “unequivocally” loved St. John’s and was determined to find a real-world application for the ideas he studied. He found it in law school, which he likens to “a very esoteric tool box. It’s a professional school. The law was something within my skill set, and I thought it would bridge the practical and the intellectual.”

Now he employs his St. John’s education daily. As a line prosecutor, he says, “I get my cases three days out, so I have three days to read through the files for 10 to 15 cases.” There are also more abstract benefits Hitchcock-Lopez gained from the Program. “There are lots of different kinds of Johnnies,” he says. “I was one of the people freshman year who was too talkative. What I learned was how to listen and how not to talk. You don’t learn that in law school.”

It’s something he uses “all the time, in everything I do. If someone says, ‘I don’t want to come to court,’ I have to determine what the underlying issue is. Is it emotional, like fear? Is it logistical?”

Lanuti also finds that the skills he honed at St. John’s are indispensable in his working life. “As a Johnnie, you become very accustomed to thinking outside the box,” he says. “You’re always trying to come up with creative ways to address problems. I have found that to be incredibly helpful in approaching my cases. I’m always trying to come up with diagrams and visualizations to help explain things to the judge, which is very similar to explaining mathematical propositions at St. John’s.”

“We’re unable to be intimidated by a new idea or science, no matter how foreign, and we’re not afraid to ask questions about it,” he continues. “My colleague recently had a DUI trial with several competing experts who were arguing about the veracity of a chemical analysis of blood. I felt very comfortable trying to figure out a science that is completely foreign to me, because I had to encounter that every day in lab.”

For Lanuti, choosing a favorite Program text is like picking a favorite child. While he credits Nicomachean Ethics and Politics as foundational, what made an even greater impact was The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.

“It’s hard to find another work in the Program that is more beautifully written,” Lanuti says. “Du Bois is somehow able to convey profound, complicated ideas and emotions, especially the injustice felt by fellow human beings who are simply trying to find prosperity in our country. Given that a prosecutor’s sole object is to ‘do justice,’ I often think about this book. I’m also painfully aware that the same issues that Du Bois struggled with in 1903 remain with us today.”

Hitchcock-Lopez sees relevance in Program texts, too—especially the ways they continue to reverberate. “It’s just always worth remembering how uniquely situated St. John’s is to ask questions and think about things that not everyone has the opportunity to do,” he says. “There is also a responsibility to think about how that relates to the bigger world. When you go to law school, you study the Constitution. Those words that exist on a page, they don’t just live in books. They are the basis of the structure of the culture we live in.”

And for Krasner, the advantages of a St. John’s education are demonstrated daily in Lanuti and Hitchcock-Lopez’s approach to the law. “Their dedication to evidence-based reasoning, the real-world application of knowledge, and fighting to make our diverse communities fair and just is something we embrace here at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office,” he says.

“Having ADAs Joseph Lanuti and Dylan Hitchcock-Lopez join the office and become part of our progressive team has been a great benefit to the work we do, and their perspective and classroom experience fit right into the movement we are building here in Philadelphia.”