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 13.
This morning, I dealt with a sea of mentally ill and drug-addicted efendants. They are referred to as “dual diagnosis” because they have two issues: mental illness and drug addiction. We don’t have a lot of places to put dual diagnosis defendants. Often, they are homeless and live on the streets. They can be difficult personalities in court. They’ve self-medicated with illegal substances such as methamphetamine or cocaine. After they’re locked up in the largest mental institution in the world, the Los Angeles County Jail, they stabilize because they’re given the correct psych meds.
Prisoners are usually released without enough medicine to keep them stable. Without the ability to get more meds, the mental health of defendants quickly deteriorates, resulting in a return to custody. Often, they ask to represent themselves in court. Judges are mostly required to let them do so, even if they are difficult.
It is a bad idea for defendants to represent themselves because they have no legal training. They will be pitted against experienced prosecutors, and they will make rookie mistakes. For example, in a robbery trial, a defendant representing himself claimed he wasn’t there. But, in cross-examining the victim, the defendant asked, “How did you know it was me if I was wearing a mask?”
One defendant this morning, a college graduate, was addicted to heroin and was attending a methadone program. While seeking heroin, he allegedly threatened a storekeeper with a box cutter. The shopkeeper confronted him after noticing the defendant taking several bundles of razor blades, presumably to sell on the streets. The well-spoken defendant said, “No way do I want to plead guilty to the felony of robbery. I have no criminal record. If I have a conviction for robbery, I will not be able to get a decent job. As a heroin addict, I was desperate for money to buy heroin. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
The heroin addict was right about how impossible it is to get a job with a conviction for robbery. At the same time, threatening a stranger with a box cutter unless he gets money fits the definition of a classic robbery. As a judge, I can’t change the charge. I also can’t blame the DA for being concerned with community safety.
There is a difference between a judge’s power (called judicial power) and a prosecutor’s power (called executive power). In some cases, I can step in and tell a defendant that if he “pleads to the sheet” (pleads guilty to everything he is charged with), I will give a more lenient sentence than the prosecutor will offer. This takes the decision on what to do with a defendant out of the hands of the prosecutor.
The power to take an “open plea” in which a defendant pleads to everything makes smoke issue from prosecutors’ ears. For that reason, it is exercised rarely by judges. I have a dear judge friend who took many open pleas. The head prosecutor got so furious that he prevented his deputies from going to that judge. Without prosecutors coming to his courtroom, this judge had no work to do. My friend had to leave criminal law and transfer to civil. He is prospering there, but the criminal bench and both sides lost a brilliant and compassionate judge.
This illustrates the dilemma for judges when prosecutors file motions to disqualify them. Many judges, with bravado, assert that it doesn’t bother them a bit. “Knock yourself out,” one judge said to a prosecutor who threatened that if the judge kept making certain types of decisions, his office would “take him out.”
Judges who say they don’t care can exhibit false bravado. Many of us are in assignments that took years to attain. If the prosecutor’s office “takes us out,” we could be assigned to a less desirable courthouse or even an assignment other than criminal law. It’s a powerful weapon, the threat of blanket disqualification, and while a war with a judge is ongoing, no one knows how it will end.