Katherine Mader spent two decades as a judge in Los Angeles Criminal Court, before retiring early in 2020. Before that she was the LAPD’s first Inspector General, prosecuted two murder-for-hire trials and served as a defense attorney who convinced a jury to spare the life of the Hillside Strangler. In August of this year, Judge Mader published Inside the Robe: A Judge’s Candid Tale of Criminal Justice in America, which best selling author Michael Connelly called: “a perfect book: engrossing and telling at the same time.” The Judge has granted Crime Story permission to excerpt the entirety of her book over the coming months. You can find previous installments of Inside the Robe here. This is Part 4.
I do sometimes react emotionally to a case. Recently, I sentenced a reckless drunk driving defendant to life in prison for crossing over the center line, causing a head-on collision that killed a young woman. According to her devastated husband of one month: “Five minutes before the crash my wife received a call from a producer congratulating her upon getting her first feature film job as a costume designer. That was her life’s dream, and minutes later she was dead.”
As I listened to the mourning husband describe calling his wife’s parents to inform them of their daughter’s violent and senseless death, I felt a lump in my throat. My heart went out to this family suffering pain and sadness that will endure over their lifetimes.
I’ve wrestled with my own experience of victim impact. For years I have worked alongside crime victims and their families, both as a defense attorney and as a prosecutor. One day, in response to my usual question of jurors, “Has your family ever been affected by violent crime,” a juror said, “I don’t know if this applies, but I have relatives killed by the Nazis.” While my close relatives were also murdered, I never considered myself linked with the families of crime victims. When I see victim advocates helping relatives of murder victims in court, I still feel that we have nothing in common. My situation feels long ago and from another era.
I know that I would not enjoy presiding in dependency court, making daily decisions about whether to remove abused children from their homes or not. Judges who do that work are stronger and braver than I am. A judge in my assignment hears mysteries that unfold over days or months with only an occasional disturbing photo. Judges in dependency court hear about physically and mentally abused children all day long. That assignment would bother me at night. Those decisions seem more freighted than what degree of murder and what type of punishment fit the smothering of one’s child.
Professionals get acclimatized to extremely violent or sad circumstances if they perform the same acts over and over. Pediatric oncologists at Children’s Hospital visit and console the parents of a dozen dying children every day. Compared to that, presiding over a murder trial seems uncomplicated.
As the year begins, I am both nervous and excited. I am excited because I never know what types of trials will arrive in my court. Will they be murder, fraud, robbery, or something else? I also don’t know which attorneys will arrive along with the trial. Each trial will have a different set of lawyers. Will they get along with each other or will I have to constantly intervene to keep things calm? Will one of them hate judges and constantly bait me? Will one or both attorneys be unnecessarily wordy and put the jury to sleep? Will the defendant be pleasant or hostile, engaged or passive?
I am a little nervous because last year I had problems with Cora, the prosecutor assigned to my court. A prosecutor is also known as a deputy district attorney. These attorneys are employed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and their job is to prove that someone has committed a crime and also to seek justice. Deputy public defenders are attorneys employed by the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, and their role is to represent defendants who do not have enough money to hire their own lawyer. Each courtroom has an assigned prosecutor and defense attorney. Ideally, they work together to decide which cases will settle and which will go to trial. I see the attorneys assigned to my court every morning. A different set of attorneys will come to my court for jury trials that begin at 10:30 a.m.
When my assigned attorneys don’t work together smoothly, that tension also affects me. Cora is in her sixties, with long, dyed-black hair, plunging V-neck sweaters, and a scratchy yet assertive voice. She never stops arguing. Cora will object to me giving an unemployed defendant more time to pay thousands of dollars of fines, saying: “It doesn’t matter that he is the only breadwinner in his family and supporting three small children and a wife. He needs to demonstrate he is financially responsible. You need to set a hearing on his finances.” Or, “How can you accept the defendant’s excuse that he didn’t come to court because he was in the hospital? I agree that he doesn’t look well, and that he came to court in a wheelchair. But you are letting this defendant manipulate you.” Cora has been with me for over a year, and there is no end in sight.
I don’t mean to single out only a prosecutor for being difficult. My assigned defense attorneys range from industrious, imaginative, and capable advocates to lazy and hostile zealots. I have had “true believers,” usually young defense attorneys, one step removed from peace earrings and love beads, who vouch for the truthfulness of all their clients, stating such things as: “I believe Jenny when she says she knew nothing about her boyfriend’s gang membership. She may have a gang tattoo from her boyfriend’s gang on her collarbone but it’s only because she loves her boyfriend so much. Just because the ‘government’ claims she’s a gang associate doesn’t make it so. Why are you so quick to believe the ‘government’?” The word “government” is usually said in a loud tone of voice and with a sneer. I have also had defense attorneys who avoid trials at all costs, preferring to settle cases, even if the settlement is not good for their clients. In the trade, we call them “dump trucks.”
You can acquire the entirety of Judge Mader’s Inside the Robe: A Judge’s Candid Tale of Criminal Justice in America here.