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 15.
An unusual case arrived in my court today. The defendant had been living in Mexico for the past six years, even though he had been placed on probation in Los Angeles. After his guilty plea to selling drugs and carrying a loaded weapon six years ago, this defendant never breathed fresh air. He was returned to jail and deported directly to Mexico by immigration authorities. He returned to the United States after the three-year grant of probation ran its course and was arrested at the border for violating the terms of his probation. My task was to figure out if he was in violation of his probation.
The defense attorney argued, “My client could not have ‘willfully’ violated his probation. It wasn’t his choice not to report to probation. He was deported against his will directly from the jail. He couldn’t report to probation if he was in Mexico. His three-year grant of probation ran out while he was still in Mexico. Yes, he came back six years after he was placed on probation and is being brought to you in custody. Yes, he was stopped at the U.S. border and arrested. But you need to release him. His probation has expired.” The law today is clear, and the defense attorney is correct.
I chafed at the unjust result. I wanted to make my own law and place the defendant back on probation to see if he would start reporting to a probation officer. I had to pull myself back from doing it.
When I first became a judge, I thought, “Surely, I can’t get into trouble as a judge by just doing the right thing, even if it doesn’t follow the letter of the law.” I’ve since learned that, Yes, you can get into trouble by not following the law. Don’t even consider not following the law. You could have your decision reversed. You could even be disciplined by the commission that handles judicial discipline. The consequences aren’t worth it. This is not a split-the-baby scenario. One side will be pleased, the other unhappy. There was nothing for me to do other than follow the law. The probationer had not legally violated his probation. I released him.
As I sat on the bench calling my morning cases, the door adjoining the back corridor sprang open and the judge from next door exclaimed, “My bailiff needs backup! No one is showing up. I keep pushing on my button and nothing happens!”
Judges and judicial assistants have emergency buttons that summon help when there is a commotion in the courtroom. “A defendant stood up and started spitting at me! My bailiff is struggling with him!” The other judge and I ran down the back hallway, bursting in on other courtrooms through their rear doors, looking for help. Finally, the word was out, and a crowd of bailiffs came to assist.
Judges are considered vulnerable targets, and our bailiffs are supposed to protect us first. That can be awkward. During these incidents, I want to stay in the courtroom and keep pushing the emergency button until help arrives. But I’m told not to. Bailiffs want their judges to leave immediately during an incident to make sure they’re safe. They don’t want to have their attention distracted by a fighting defendant and a judge who may be in danger.
Courtroom incidents come in many forms. A young, nice-looking man with no criminal record was about to be sentenced recently in my court for an attempted rape and burglary. His story was, “I was doing great in life. I had a college football scholarship back East. And I went to California for Christmas break. In Los Angeles I was introduced to crystal meth and started smoking it. I never returned to college. I shouldn’t have been convicted because I didn’t know what I was doing.” The young man smuggled a razor into court in his hair and put it in his mouth just before his sentencing, and yelled, “I am going to swallow this razor blade. My life is over! I cannot go back to jail. Just watch me!” Luckily, forty-five minutes later, he was talked into spitting out the razor.
A gruesome murder jury trial arrived in my court. Good news because I’m ready to be engaged in trial, but bad news because the defendant is a woman charged with the murder of a four-year-old child. Horrible photos of burns and gangrene-filled intestines as a result of repeated punching need to be seen by the jury.
As a favor to the child’s mother, the defendant was supposed to care for the little girl. The defendant has no criminal record. It is difficult to find a jury to hear child-murder cases with photos. Most potential jurors recoil. “I have my own children. I love children. I can’t look at those pictures. There is no way I can be fair to the defendant.” Others claim, “I was physically abused myself as a child. I never talk about it. If I had to hear this trial, all those memories would come back. I’ve been in therapy for years because of the damage that was done to me.”
After a conference with both attorneys, I suggested that both sides see whether they could settle. The prosecutor and defense attorney were female and mothers. I was too. None of us wanted to go to trial.
The defendant offered to plead guilty and receive a fixed term of twenty-six years in prison. The prosecution offered to let her plead guilty to second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of fifteen years to life. The exact release date would be set by the parole board. The defendant does not go before the parole board for fifteen years. The defendant was in a bind. If she went to trial, she could be convicted of a second crime of “child abuse causing the death of a four-year-old.” That charge alone carried twenty-five years to life. She wouldn’t go before the parole board for twenty-five years.
The prosecution was also going to try to prove that the murder involved torture. If it was successful, that also carries twenty-five years to life. Juries hate defendants who kill children. She could easily have been found guilty of both charges. The defendant was wise to agree to the fifteen-to-life sentence. She has some chance, when she is elderly, to be released and live with her family again. Did the children of the defendant grow up with someone who was capable of socking and burning a helpless child? Did she also physically abuse her own family?