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 14.

January 20

Judges have strong opinions about watching crime shows and reading crime novels after we leave work. One group of judges leaves all crime at the courthouse. They go home, play with their children, garden, play the cello, or go to cooking classes. The other group is fascinated by crime, and it is a part of their life after work, too. I’m part of the latter group and especially enjoyed watching the TV documentary series “Jinx” and “Making a Murderer.” I find myself checking fictional police procedurals out of the library, but when I get home and start reading, I often ask myself, Why in the world are you spending your time reading this? Don’t you get enough of this at work?

As a judge who is also a crime junkie, I know there’s a huge difference between reading about a trial, seeing a movie about a trial, and watching the actual trial from beginning to end. I’m constantly amazed at people expressing strong opinions after just seeing a crime reported on television such as, “That guy is so obviously guilty. They should lock him up and throw away the key.”

When I ask them to give me facts on which they base their opinion, they are almost always at a loss. Even when I preside over an entire trial, I’m often not sure about what happened. Both sides, if they’re good at it, spin the facts to make their side look compelling. Today we have a substitute bailiff with a nasty attitude. All our bailiffs are Deputy Los Angeles County Sheriffs. This one is an “overtime bailiff,” meaning he’s assigned somewhere else, and picking up extra money by working in a courtroom. His attitude stems from being disciplined by his department for letting a situation get out of control in a courtroom lockup, the secure area where the prisoners are kept adjacent to the courtroom.

This bailiff was in charge of keeping a lockup photography session calm. A prosecutor and his photographer entered the lockup to take photos of a defendant’s tattoos to be used in a gang murder trial. The prosecutor, who normally says nothing to a defendant, especially in an open courtroom, taunted: “You sure don’t look like the same tough guy with your clothes off.”

The defendant then punched the prosecutor, and the prosecutor punched the defendant back. My overtime bailiff got into trouble for not preventing the fight.

When I entered my courtroom in the late morning, I found a defendant in his underwear having his tattoos photographed. The bailiff refused to let the photographs be taken in lockup while his disciplinary charges were pending.

This morning’s Los Angeles Times headline was “L.A. to pay $24 million for wrongful convictions.” One of the men, Kash Delano Register, a stocky, African American man in his fifties with a gentle smile, spent thirty-four years in state prison for a murder he did not commit. He was awarded $16.7 million, the largest settlement in an individual civil rights case in the city’s history. I was the judge who granted his writ, paving the way for his release.

Mr. Register was arrested for the murder of an elderly man during a robbery in 1979. He was eighteen years old at the time, and always maintained his innocence. The case was based upon eyewitness testimony from two persons, the main one claiming, “I saw someone running away from the crime scene with a gun in his hand. I knew him in high school. His name is Kash Register.” The police were satisfied they solved the case even though Mr. Register had a solid alibi. Decades later, it was discovered that at the time of the crime, the police had information that their eyewitness was a chronic drug addict with her own motives for helping the police. That information was never turned over to the defense.

The second eyewitness also had major problems, likely unknown by the police. It was discovered during the preparation for my hearing that the eyewitness―a frail, elderly man, reluctant to come to court thirty-plus years later―had never seen anything. At the time of the crime, his wife, looking out their apartment window, saw a suspect running, but, being pregnant, she did not want the stress of speaking with the police. Her husband, wanting to help his wife, pretended that he was the eyewitness. He identified a man he had never seen before.

All this time, Mr. Register was locked up. While incarcerated, he became friendly with another inmate in the prison library. The other inmate became convinced of Mr. Register’s innocence and vowed, “When I get out, I will become an attorney and help Kash.” That actually came to pass. Mr. Register’s inmate friend was released and wrote a legal motion to free Kash. That motion landed on my desk. The motion was elegantly written. As I read it, my heart quickened. I read and reject these types of motions all the time, but this one was special. After holding a three-week hearing during which I saw and heard live witnesses from thirty-four years earlier, I granted Mr. Register a new trial.

Fortunately, the District Attorney’s Office agreed with my analysis, released Mr. Register, and did not proceed with a re-trial. Mr. Register’s friend from the prison library, then attending law school in Sacramento, was in the audience when Mr. Register was set free.

Mr. Register was fortunate to be hired by Costco. I was delighted to see his photo on the wall at my local Costco as their “Employee of the Month.” I left my business card in the Costco office, and was excited to hear from Mr. Register a few weeks ago. He said, “I consider myself so blessed to have been released while my mother is still alive. I always had hope that the truth would come out. I could have been released earlier if I accepted responsibility and expressed remorse for the murder. But I couldn’t take the blame for something I did not do.”

The release of Kash Register is one of the most fulfilling decisions I have made on the bench. Whenever I think of leaving the job, I come back to the power I have as a judge in cases such as Kash Register’s. There’s no other job where I could have such a direct impact on dozens of people, day after day. It is a rare privilege. Costco lost a valued employee. I don’t think Mr. Register returned to work after the case settled. He deserved every dime. Kash Register is the richest person I know. Case closed.

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