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 23.
Before the trial began, we handled a motion to suppress evidence in a felony drunk driving case. Felony drunk driving is much more serious than simple drunk driving. If a drunk driver has several earlier drunk driving convictions, their new arrest can be charged as a felony, subjecting a defendant to state prison.
The defense attorney wants to challenge the police stop of the defendant. “My theory is that the police had no reason to pull over my client. He was driving perfectly. Since the police had no valid reason for the traffic stop, everything that happened afterwards, including the arrest of my client, should be thrown out.”
The prosecutor saw it differently. “This California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer stopped the defendant’s car because it veered four feet into another lane. He recognized that might be the sign of an impaired driver, and that justified him stopping the defendant’s car.”
“Your Honor,” said the defense attorney, “I happen to have the dash camera video from the front of the patrol car. I’ve watched it many times. My client was driving perfectly. There was no reason to pull him over.”
The clean-cut, military-styled blond male CHP officer was sworn in as a witness and narrated the video from the witness stand. The attorneys and I huddled over the video on the defense attorney’s computer. The officer used his finger to point at the screen. “Here you see for a fraction of a second the wheels of the defendant’s car crossing into another lane and back again.”
It needed a trained eye of an officer who had seen hundreds of drunk drivers to point out the transgression. Once we all saw it, it was obvious even to the defense attorney. She appeared as deflated as a balloon that had lost all its air.
Nothing more needed to be said. The defendant accepted four years in state prison. Having videos from the dashboard of a police car is valuable to both sides. Sometimes it helps the prosecution, sometimes the defense. In all instances, it is better evidence than what we used to have―people’s conflicting recollections.
Judges often talk about courtroom control. We may know the law but learning what to do when attorneys and defendants act out in court is something that comes with experience. This morning a judge described an out-of-control defendant on trial for attempted murder and facing two life terms in prison. The defendant kept shouting at the prosecutor and, in front of the jury, threatened to kill him. There were twenty family members of the defendant in the audience who
kept trying to communicate with the defendant and vice versa.
Before removing a defendant from his own trial due to misconduct, a judge must go through a checklist of requirements. Criteria for what is necessary to take a family member into custody for violating a court order not to communicate with a prisoner also exist. It’s essential to warn the audience and the defendant. A judge must describe the exact conduct.
“Ma’am, I’ve noticed that you and the defendant keep mouthing words to each other. There is a sign on the door that you are not allowed to communicate with a prisoner. And I am giving you an order not to do so. If you do it again, I will exclude you from the courtroom.” Without a warning, a judge can’t punish anyone for contempt later.
Some judges have trouble with attorneys who do not want to disclose information to the court. A judge friend told me of a preliminary hearing she was conducting at the end of which the attorney said, “I must leave at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow because I have a thing that I must do.”
The judge inquired, “What is the ‘thing’ you have to do?”
“I do not want to get into it. It’s just a ‘thing’ I must do.”
“If you won’t tell the court what it is, I won’t have a valid reason to continue the hearing. You’ll be ordered to remain until the hearing is over.”
“Whatever you say, Your Honor. I will be leaving at ten.”
The judge was rattled as she described the situation to her fellow judges. My advice to the worried judge was, “The attorney will probably have calmed down by the morning. Don’t mention yesterday’s events and the attorney’s behavior. Try to get the hearing over by 10:00. If it gets close to 10:00, and the attorney starts making noise about walking out, call both sides to the bench. Have the court reporter present. Ask the attorney, ‘Why do you want to leave?’ Either accept the answer or warn the attorney that if he walks out, he will be cited for contempt. Judges hate contempt hearings because they are technical, and it’s easy to make mistakes that result in the charge being overturned later. But sometimes you must do it.
I ran into a judge friend from a branch court. He told me, “I’ve had such trouble with a public defender in my court. He was making my life a living hell. I’m trying to get through a massive calendar every day, and this public defender objected to everything, was nasty, intentionally slow, and continuously disrespectful to me, opposing counsel, and even his clients! I got to the point where my mental health was affected, and I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.
“Ultimately, I went to the head judge of my courthouse and said, ‘I’ve gotta remove myself from hearing the public defender’s cases because I can’t be fair to this guy’s clients.’ My supervisor didn’t back me. I was told to handle the PD cases or be transferred out of the building. I was further warned by the head of my courthouse, ‘You should be careful what you’re doing here, as you could be ruining your career.’
The affected judge got into the head judge’s face and said, “Are you threatening me? If so, I’m too old to be threatened. I’m out of here.”
After that encounter, he was approached by two other judges in the building who also had encounters with the same public defender. One, with tears in his eyes, said that he wished he had the same courage as the traumatized judge. “That public defender almost cost me my marriage,” he said. “I was upset every night and all I could do was rant and rave.” Another judge told him that dealing with the public defender resulted in him seeing a psychiatrist for the first time. And the public defender? After a series of earlier incidents, his office demoted him. He sued, won, and was restored to his prior rank. Now his office is afraid to touch him.
Back at the trial, the first victim described the defendant attacking both him and his friend. Then a juror gave me a note. It said, “Two nights ago, shots were fired in the middle of the night outside my house. I am concerned because I told everyone in court where I worked. The defendant on trial may have been behind the shooting.” I asked the juror to stay behind at the end of the day. “In forty years, I have never seen a juror targeted at home by a defendant. We have no way of knowing where a juror lives. Why don’t you relax, think about the situation overnight, and maybe feel better about it in the morning?”