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 29.
One judge in my courthouse hears cases in which prisoners sentenced to life in prison under the “Three Strikes sentencing law” have their sentences re-evaluated. Under the original Three Strikes law, defendants with two prior serious or violent felonies could be sentenced to prison for life upon their conviction for committing a new felony, even if that third felony was not serious.
“Tough on crime” measures such as the Three Strikes law were popular in the nineties. California voters later realized that locking people up for life if their third strike was as minor as stealing a piece of pizza did not protect society nor ensure a prisoner’s rehabilitation. The cost of $22,000 per year to house an inmate in the state prison system probably factored into voters’ change of heart about the Three Strikes law.
The judge handling these cases told us about the defendant appearing before him: “This prisoner has been incarcerated for twenty-three years as a result of the Three Strikes law. His third strike was a theft from a department store of a small item using a stolen traveler’s check, a felony. The first two strikes were from one incident during which the defendant was a student at UC Riverside. He pleaded guilty to two counts of rape of another student at college. The victim was someone he knew since childhood, and the rape occurred after a night of drinking. In the rape case, the defendant received one year in county jail but ended up with two strikes on his record. The defendant’s life sentence for the later theft is what resulted in him spending twenty-three years behind bars at the time of his hearing.”
This type of sentence was not unusual. At one time, there were dozens of inmates in prison for life for third-strike offenses as minor as stealing a CD from a Target store. These categories of defendants now have a right to a hearing.
I don’t know how my fellow judge will rule in such a case. The former college student has been a model prisoner for twenty-three years and has taken every possible college class, has numerous letters of support, and his parents are waiting in the audience to take him home. When voters pass laws that judges rigidly follow, there are real life consequences. I don’t think voters fully understand the impact of such decisions. They are impacted by emotional appeals to protect themselves and their families from dangerous criminals. This case also illustrates how making mistakes, either by being drunk, or impetuously using a stolen traveler’s check, can upend one’s life and the life of victims and loved ones for decades.
The prosecution is objecting to this prisoner’s release, regardless of the twenty-three years spent in prison. He argues that there are no women in state prison, and one never knows how this prisoner will behave if he is released, and then is around women and again gets drunk. I wonder how many years this prosecutor thinks would be sufficient.
The supervising criminal judge does not randomly send jury trials to courtrooms. Some judges are known for being better able to crack down on difficult defendants or attorneys. The clerk who makes the assignments has a lot of power. When each new supervising judge takes over the criminal courts, he or she begins by personally making the trial assignments. After a few months, the work piles up, and the supervising judge gradually gives the assignment clerk more power. My first Christmas downtown, I saw the assignment clerk’s office loaded with holiday presents. It never occurred to me that giving a present could get me better cases. Sometimes I hear other judges say, “There’s an interesting murder coming up tomorrow. I’m going to visit Linda and see if I can get it assigned to me.” Perhaps those are the same judges who leave the holiday gifts.
The jurors are in a deliberation room behind the courtroom. The deliberation room has a huge round wooden table, with enough chairs for all twelve jurors. There’s also a private bathroom within the room. Jurors are locked into the room and need the court clerk or bailiff to let them out. They communicate with the court by pushing a buzzer. Three buzzes signal a verdict. We all hope for three buzzes because that means the trial is over. Two buzzes can mean that the jury has a question, or it can’t reach a verdict. Whenever I hear two buzzes I think, “Oh no. We’re not done.”
This jury has asked several questions about the victims’ description of the shooters. Our court reporter needs to go through the testimony and prepare the answers. While everything is typed into her machine, it is in a special language that can’t be read unless it’s converted to English text. Sometimes, jurors ask for several witnesses’ testimony to be read back to them. It’s as though they weren’t even present at the trial. I always ask jurors to narrow down what they’re asking. Jurors don’t realize that the transcript is not prepared automatically but takes a lot of manual work to prepare.