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 22.
I tell all defendants appearing on my morning calendar: “You are ordered to return at 8:30 a.m. Be sure to remember about the traffic and slow elevators.” Defendants arrive from all over the county, some by bus, car, or even bicycle. Parking fees of up to $25 per day are not waived for defendants coming to court. Since many defendants have no money, they can’t pay parking fees, and are regularly late.
Even when defendants show up on time, their attorneys are often late because they schedule several matters in different courtrooms. Attorneys even try to make appearances at several courthouses every morning before judges start their trials.
A late attorney is frustrating for everyone. It’s especially annoying for clients who have taken time off from work to come to court or in-custody defendants who are awakened at 4:00 a.m. to start waiting in line, sometimes chained together, to get on the court bus. By the time the prisoners stagger into my court, they have been awake for hours. Then to not have their case heard because their attorney is late can make someone furious. Angry prisoners create security problems for the sheriffs. The inmates don’t want to leave until their attorney sees them.
My court staff gripes that I become impatient when in trial. “Why can’t you just wait in your chambers until we tell you that the cases are ready to be called? You are so hyper and stressed when we’re in trial that we get stressed out, too. So what if you don’t start jury trials at 10:30? The jurors will just wait a few minutes in the hallway. It won’t kill them.”
I have the notion that if I sit on the bench, and pounce on the attorneys when they enter my courtroom, I will finish faster. My staff insists that if I let them organize the attorneys and then come get me when everyone in the courtroom is ready, it will not take additional time. I keep picturing the jurors arriving, following my order to come at 10:30 a.m., checking the time, and wondering why they have to wait. Besides having control issues, I am a nut about punctuality. I always get places early. My parents were the same way. I remember my father and mother furiously arguing many times inside the front door of our house with my mother trying to delay their leaving: “Please, Paul, we don’t always have to be the first person at the party. I know you’re punctual, and in Austria it’s important. But here, in America, people are more relaxed about getting places, especially for social occasions.”
Every time an attorney arrives as we’re about to start our trial, we go through the same routine: “Can I come back at 11:55, just before lunch, and call my case?”
“That won’t work because my staff needs to know that the court will not invade their lunchtime.”
“What about 1:30 when your doors open?”
“Sorry, I can’t take a risk that you won’t be here in time. Your client is in custody. My jury trial defendant is also in custody. My only bailiff can’t get your client here at 1:30 and also get our trial started on time. Do you want to come at 3:00 p.m. precisely when we take our afternoon break? Or do you want to try to come at 4:00 p.m. at the end of our day? Or do you just want to return another day entirely?”
Each of these suggestions will irritate my staff. Liz, my court reporter, needs to rest her hands during the fifteen-minute break at 3:00 p.m. The last thing she wants to do is tire her fingers for a tardy attorney. Likewise, Michael, my judicial assistant, hates to hear a case at 4:00 p.m. He has to enter all of the court’s business into a computer with an antiquated and agonizingly slow operating system before he leaves each day. Hearing a case at 4:00 p.m. could delay him getting home. It’s a balancing act keeping everyone’s interests in mind.
We continued selecting a jury this morning. I had to excuse many jurors who didn’t speak English well enough to understand the proceedings. That is a tricky area. It is not too difficult to exaggerate one’s lack of English ability. I asked various questions to tease out the exaggerators.
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m an acupuncturist. I am Chinese.”
“Do some of your patients tell you what’s wrong with them in English?”
“Yes, but most of my clients speak Chinese.”
“What about the exam you took to get a license? Wasn’t the test in English?”
“Yes, but it was a long time ago. I can understand medical concepts, not legal.”
The prospective juror will not be excused. It is not necessary that someone speak English perfectly in order to be a juror.
When I excuse somebody who claims they can barely speak English, I quickly say, “You can return to the jury assembly room right now as I am excusing you.” Some people, professing to not speak English, understand perfectly what I said, jump up immediately and purposefully head toward the door. Others, who truly do not speak English, look at me blankly. Another person in the audience needs to explain for them that they are excused.
The attorneys and I excused a couple of jurors because both sides agreed they were mentally ill. We also had a well-dressed woman, a prospective juror, tell us, “These facts are so close to what happened when my brother was shot by a gang member that I would not be able to concentrate. Just coming into this courtroom is giving me a panic attack.”
One disagreeable potential juror was a middle-aged, red-faced construction superintendent trying his hardest to get back to his job. He gamed every question.
“Could you be fair and objective?”
“I don’t see how we’re supposed to make a decision. To me trials seem to be a ‘He said, she said.’”
“What if one witness said a car was white and the other witness said the car was red. Assume further that this is not a critical issue in the case. Would you automatically find that there was reasonable doubt and find the defendant not guilty?”
“Absolutely, if there’s a difference in opinion I would find the defendant not guilty.”
“What if the defendant chose to testify? Would you give him bonus points?”
“Yes, he doesn’t have to testify. So, if he does testify, he gets extra points in my book.”
Each side excused four jurors before lunch. The prosecutor excused the construction superintendent who was obviously lying. That left only two potential jurors in the audience. We needed to order more jurors from the jury room.
This is not so simple. We were originally sent fifty jurors which in some trials would be plenty. No judge wants to order jurors in the afternoon as afternoon jurors are often “rejects” from other courts. “Rejects” sounds worse than it is. They are jurors who were already excused by that trial judge. Perhaps they didn’t speak English, had medical or childcare issues, or had travel plans with tickets already purchased. They return to the jury assembly room and are often sent out to another courtroom for a different trial. We may come to the same conclusion as their morning judge after a short interview. A juror may not have been right for the morning trial, though, but suitable for ours. For example, their vacation plans might fit my trial schedule better.
It’s so important to begin with “fresh” jurors that sometimes it’s worthwhile to recess the trial until the next morning. We also don’t want to waste jury time. We ended the day with both a jury and several alternate jurors. Alternate jurors sit and listen to the entire trial and are ready to be substituted for a permanent juror who may get sick or have an emergency during the trial. The jurors each raise their right hand, and all swear they will faithfully try the case, analyze the facts, and follow the law.