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 8.
Before 2000, there were two categories of courts and judges: municipal and superior. Municipal court judges handled misdemeanors, less serious cases such as drunk driving and petty theft, and the early steps of felony proceedings. Superior court judges conducted more serious felony trials such as robbery, rape, and murder. In late 2000 the courts were combined, and all municipal judges automatically became “superior court judges.”
This was not without controversy. Some more senior superior court judges were dismayed: “Judge Iknownothing has been a muni (municipal) judge for twenty years. No way is he qualified to handle the complex felony trials that I’ve been doing. The muni judges shouldn’t even be allowed to sit at our lunch table. They’re lightweights.”
The former muni judges were also appalled. “How dare those guys think they’re so much better than we are. They’re a bunch of elitist snobs. We all went to law school and passed the same bar exam. We’ve been doing the difficult work of the court in crowded courtrooms for years. These old guys are just sitting around and waiting to retire.”
Controversy over cafeteria seating has been going on for years, even today, fifteen years after the combination of the municipal and superior courts. Felony trial judges sit at the north end of the table; judges who handle less serious cases sit at the south end and sometimes even at a second table. There is little mingling.
I purposefully began coming to cafeteria for both breakfast and lunch from the day I arrived at the building three years ago. I wanted to assert myself as an equal member of the felony trial court. Years earlier, when I was a new judge, and before I was assigned downtown, I had a few unpleasant experiences in the lunchroom. As I approached the counter to order food, I saw senior judges cock their heads to see who entered, before their eyes quickly returned to their plates. They didn’t smile, say hello, or welcome me to the court. These judges knew me, because I had appeared in front of them as an attorney. I didn’t want to return to the lunchroom.
As a fifteen-year judge, I take my place on the north end of the table. Sometimes I am the only woman among a dozen men. The younger judges never join us. I keep inviting them, but they don’t come. The other day, one confided, “Why in hell would I spend my lunch time with the old conservative guys who sit at that table? We don’t have any of the same interests. Plus, they’re not nice. They don’t show any interest in me. All they want to talk about is investments and retirement.”
I’m included among the “old guys” even though I rarely talk about retirement or investments. I have urged the older judges to welcome the newer ones to the lunchroom. They call me the social secretary. In years past, I would have chided them about the sexist title. Today, I just laugh. We shower newer judges with friendliness when they occasionally show up. Nevertheless, they rarely return. Do younger judges feel intimidated? Are they worried about asking a question and sounding stupid? Do they feel that older judges have moved too far beyond the simple cases that most new judges handle? Or would they simply prefer to socialize with their peers?
Today I was sent a gang murder trial. The defendant was twenty years old but with baggy county blues and pale facial features still forming, appeared years younger. He had been in county jail for two years. Another stupid fight between rival gangs. It was claimed that the defendant killed a young man by stabbing him in the stomach with a Knife.
The prosecutor had a strong case. “Two of the other defendants have pled guilty. They’re ready to testify in court that the defendant was the stabber. And the defendant’s DNA was found on the knife that was used.” Jurors love hearing about DNA and mostly consider it infallible evidence.
Both parties wanted to settle the case, and they were not far apart. According to the defense attorney, “My client is facing twenty-five years to life in state prison. He’s only twenty. As you know, with a life sentence, a defendant never knows when he will get out. It could be twenty years, thirty, or never. My client will plead guilty to a lot of years, even twenty-five years. He just wants a firm date for getting out.”
The parole board is a political body. Its members are chosen by the governor and reflect the governor’s politics. We recently had a governor in California, Gray Davis, who took pride in never allowing life prisoners out of prison no matter how well they had behaved. Even if a parole board recommends someone be released, a governor can veto that decision. The governor can then brag, “No murderer was ever released on my watch.” A political opponent cannot claim, “Look at the face of the killer on the screen. My challenger released him. This same man raped and killed another victim. My rival has the blood of this poor victim on his hands.”
In my courtroom, the prosecutor said, “I need the defendant to agree to at least thirty years. If he agrees, I’ll go to my boss and try to get approval.” I told the defendant, “If you want the thirty years, you need to tell your attorney. Then the prosecutor will go to his boss. Prosecutors do not want to waste time asking their boss for offers and then come back to find out a defendant is not interested.”
This defendant was interested, the offer of thirty years was made and accepted, and the trial went away. The defendant will serve 85 percent of those thirty years. He will be released back into society when he is in his mid-forties. There will still be time for a family and a life.
The jury trial was sent to me at 9:30 a.m. It took until 3:15 p.m. to resolve it. I will take however long it’s necessary to settle a case. Other judges don’t think it’s their job to try to settle cases sent to them. They just start choosing jurors. The way I figure it, we just saved eight days of trial, and my court is open for another case.