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 21.
A new judge was recently selected as a juror in a rape trial. That’s highly unusual. While judges are called to jury duty, the prosecutor or defense attorney will almost always excuse the judge. The danger is that jurors will defer to a judge’s opinion as to guilt or innocence. That’s
great for an advocate if the judge agrees with you but not so good if the judge/juror is against you.
According to courthouse gossip, this jury should have come back in fifteen minutes with a guilty verdict. Instead, the jury deliberated over two days and ultimately found the defendant not guilty of rape. The judge/juror even allowed herself to be elected as the foreperson. Even if a judge gets selected for a jury, the judge often refuses to act as foreperson, recognizing her unfair sway over the other jurors.
Several jurors contacted the prosecutor after the trial: “The judge on our jury kept telling us that she was familiar with the charge of rape, and the defendant was not guilty. We felt intimidated and a bit bullied when we didn’t agree with the judge. Ultimately we caved.”
The prosecutor was furious, especially because the new judge had never handled a rape case as a prosecutor and was wrong about the Law.
A jury trial finally arrived at my court. Not the most exciting trial, but a predicted seven-day trial for a defendant who allegedly assaulted two men with a crowbar for the benefit of his gang. Each of the victims had staples and stitches on the top of their heads.
The prosecutor offered the defendant fifteen years in prison.“Otherwise, if you take the case to trial and lose, we will argue for more than fifteen years.” The defendant wanted his trial. Our court switched into trial mode, and we got ready to ask that potential jurors be sent up to our courtroom. The first delay came from the defense.
“I don’t know what happened, Your Honor. I got the defendant civilian clothes from our closet in the public defender’s office, gave them to the Sheriffs on the fifth floor for clearance, and the clothes still have not arrived. We need to delay everything until I can find out where the clothes are.” All clothing that comes from the outside into the jail needs to be thoroughly searched. Sometimes family members even try to sneak drugs or weapons into clothing they provide for
their loved one to wear during trial. If a defendant doesn’t have clothes, the public defender’s office has a well-used closet containing dozens of outfits in varying sizes.
Defendants never wear jail-issued clothing during jury trials. We do everything we can to prevent jurors from discerning someone is in custody. Wearing jail clothing is considered prejudicial in front of juries. If someone already looks like a prisoner, it’s easier to convict.
When the in-custody defendant is moved in and out of the courtroom through the custody door, it is always done when the jury is not in the courtroom.
For many defendants, especially those who end up with life sentences, their jury trial may be the last time in their lives they will wear street clothing. Some defendants clean up for trial, get a
conservative haircut, and look like Brooks Brothers models. The jurors are astounded when they see mug shots of disheveled hair, and photos of defendants’ bodies covered with gang tattoos their snazzy suit is hiding.
Jurors will be waiting outside my courtroom at 1:30 p.m. after the lunch break. Many of them have been strategizing for days how to get out of jury service. Every judge has stories, and many revolve around people in the entertainment industry who ask to speak privately, out of the presence of the other jurors. “Your Honor, I don’t want to tell you in front of the other jurors what I do for a living. You see, I am an actor and am concerned I will be followed and stalked. I need to be excused. I cannot mingle with the other jurors in the hallways of this courthouse.” After the attorneys and I look up the actor online, we are often surprised that this person is a “B” actor who has not been in a film or TV show for many years.
Only “B” actors request to be excused. An “A-list” actor, recognized by all, wants to appear eager to serve on a jury. The last thing celebrities want is for a potential juror to call TMZ or another gossip website and complain that the actor is trying to shirk his civic duty. My main problem with celebrities has been making sure that other jurors, some of whom have already taken photos of the famous actor in the hallway and posted them on social media, take the photos down right away. Usually the A-list actors are excused by attorneys for the same reason judges are excused. Other jurors might give their opinion too much weight just because the person is famous.
The racial composition of jurors in downtown Los Angeles has changed drastically. When I picked juries in the 1980s, the panel was composed mainly of African Americans. Today, with downtown gentrifying, Caucasian hipsters from the entertainment industry, Latinos, and a burgeoning Asian population comprise most panels. Today there was only one African American male in the panel of forty prospective jurors. The defendant in this case is Latino, so I am not worried about the lack of diversity.
This prospective panel consists of a member of the LA Philharmonic for forty-five years, a massage therapist, a gemologist, a young woman with a Wharton MBA, and a seventy-six-year-old man who has been haranguing us about people destroying the Earth. One potential juror described his profession as a TV creative marketing director and his partner of twenty-eight years as working in the clothing business. Until about one year ago, gay jurors would never acknowledge having a partner. Ever since gay marriage was legalized in California, gay jurors are much more open about their lifestyle. I no longer ask jurors whether they are married or have a “wife” or “husband.” I only use the question, “Do you have a spouse or partner?” Many jurors appear gratified that their status is finally acknowledged.