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 7.
Yesterday I wrote about stepping into the fray to settle a jury trial. The urge to get involved is part of me. Sometimes I visualize Aunt Lea and her exterminated family. Countless members of their Polish community averted their eyes and ears to what was happening to their neighbors who were disappearing in the Holocaust. I want to think that I would have risked my life to save my neighbors. But would I have? I have been more aggressive than others jumping into situations where I smelled injustice. But my life was not at stake.
I recall sitting with Norman in the 1980s on the patio of the Hotel Laguna in Laguna Beach, California, sipping daiquiris. The sunset’s pink hues meshed with the balmy breeze, and the atmosphere felt opulent and relaxed. A frail, white-haired, elderly woman was seated at the next table. She appeared to be with her taxi driver. The cabbie’s swarthy friend arrived and sat down with both the older woman and the cab driver. I overheard the first cabbie say, “Yes, I keep my money at Wells Fargo, too. Do you have more than one account there?”
Norman became annoyed because I stopped talking to him to eavesdrop on the conversation at the next table. I whispered, “I can’t talk—I think these men are setting that woman up to take money from her bank account. I need to keep listening.”
Finally, I told Norman that I would contact hotel security. I rose from the table and began the long trek up the path from the beachside bar to find the hotel security office. Norman noticed that one of the men had followed me. Against his non-confrontational nature, Norman rose and followed him. As I neared the front office, he swarthy man caught up with me. “Did you find our conversation interesting?” “Yes,” I replied. “Quite.”
The security staff was on a break; there was no one to whom I could report my observations. Norman and I left the hotel, and I called hotel security later to recount the suspicious conversation. Norman describes me as a person who never wants to see a wrong ignored if something could be done about it. He’s right. I like to fix things if I possibly can.
As the only child of Holocaust survivors, I hate to see anyone get away with hurting another. My dear Grandpa Hans, who lived with our family as I grew up, was the nanny who picked me up from school every day, fed me a snack, and sat next to me as I did my homework. My parents had full-time jobs. I’ve always felt protective toward older people, probably because of my love for Grandpa Hans. He too was a Jewish European refugee who identified as a pacifist Quaker. He was proud that while invading Belgium as a German army officer in World War One, he had instructed his troops to fire into the air, and to offer water to wounded enemy soldiers. I learned about compassion from Grandpa Hans. That might be why I don’t back away from confrontation if I can help someone who is vulnerable.
Grandpa Hans and I often sat together on his sofa bed at night and listened to classical music. He always had a giant bar of Hershey’s dark chocolate in his desk drawer for me to break off chunks to munch. His room was a refuge during my teenage years when I argued constantly with my parents about practicing the piano. Grandpa Hans was a gentle soul who counseled me not to argue about non-important issues. He died in his late seventies, when I was eighteen. I had just begun college, and I’ve always wondered whether without me in the house, Grandpa Hans’s loneliness contributed to his death. I still keep bitter chocolate in my desk drawer to remind me of Grandpa Hans. I also named one of my sons after him.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing my fellow judges at the breakfast club this morning. Eight to ten judges get together every day between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. and chatter about the news, politics, music and movies, and, of course, our cases. We needle each other, sometimes lift our voices about politics or whether one of us made the correct legal decision, but always leave the table as friends. Judges have been described in academic articles as “polite strangers” or “little gray mice scurrying down hallways,” but our breakfast club breaks down some Barriers.