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 30.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca established a rehabilitative jail program called “Merit.” Inmates who sign up for that program live in a special dorm and go to classes on subjects such as anger management, life skills, and even vocational courses like computer programming. It is an intensive program that lasts all day for several months and culminates in a graduation ceremony. While the general population of the jail is segregated by race to reduce gang violence, “Merit” requires all races to live together harmoniously. For many inmates, this is the first time they have had friends of other races. I try to send as many inmates I can to the “Merit” program. It is inspiring to see them proudly clutching their completion certificates when they return to court.
One of the most satisfying aspects of this job is to see former inmates turn their lives around. It happens more than some realize. Similar to a teacher whose student comes back to the classroom years later to show how well he or she has done in life, former inmates sometimes come back to the courtroom to say hello. It always makes my day.
The jury returned. They found one short and distinctive-looking gang member guilty of shooting at a vehicle for the benefit of the gang. That was logical. The jury hung as to the second defendant, whose features were more ordinary. The case will probably be retried, as the jurors were split 9-3 for conviction on the second defendant.
Retrials are expensive. I need to order transcripts from the court reporter so that attorneys can figure out whether witnesses are consistent in their statements between the two trials. One member of the jury who met with the attorneys in the hallway after the trial said, “One of the jurors was mentally ill. No matter how long we deliberated, we would never have reached a verdict.” I hate it when a jury has a member with mental issues, and the court is never contacted. It’s preferable to try to untangle what’s going on while a jury is still deliberating, instead of after I have declared a mistrial.
The rest of the day, I held a hearing to figure out whether a defendant was in violation of his probation. This hearing was contentious, and the prosecutor left fuming. The defendant was a long-time meth dealer who spent nineteen years in prison on various convictions for selling drugs. All drug dealers are manipulative, but meth dealers more than most. There is a saying: “If a coke dealer steals from you, you will never see him again. If a meth dealer steals from you, he will help you try to recover what he stole.”
This meth dealer made a bad bargain with the prosecutor’s office a couple years ago. He agreed to have nine years of prison hung over his head and be placed on probation with the condition that he successfully complete a drug rehab program and commit no other offense on probation. He was brought before me because he was arrested for possession of meth for sale again and my choice was either to send him to prison for nine years or give him another try at probation.
The story he told seemed far-fetched but not outside the realm of possibility. “I swear I haven’t used drugs since my arrest. I was living at this drug facility. I was even going to school and studying to be a drug rehab counselor. I got a call at 2:30 a.m. from a lady friend who said she was in trouble. She was hysterical. She was being thrown out of her home, and boxes with all her things were on the street. I drove to find her and take her to her ex-boyfriend’s house. She had nowhere else to go.”
This is where the defendant’s story got hinky. “Next to her on the street was this other guy. He came with us in the car. After I dropped her off, the guy asked if he could have a ride to a bus stop. I didn’t see why not. Then a police car wanted me to pull over. This guy in the passenger seat started dumping meth out the window.” We then heard from a police officer who testified that after he stopped the car, he found a backpack on the passenger side that had a large amount of meth, baggies, and six cell phones, often used by drug dealers. According to the defendant, “You’ve got to believe me, Your Honor. I never saw this guy before. I had no idea what was in this guy’s backpack. Why would I risk nine years in prison for giving a ride to a stranger? I remember you were the judge who took a chance on me.”
Unusually, the defendant was able to call the person in the passenger seat as his witness, as he was also in custody. Of course, they had been in the same cell together, waiting for the hearing to start. “This guy in your court didn’t know nothing about what was in my backpack. Everything in it was mine.” The backpack had no identification. My choice was between sending the defendant to prison for nine years or allowing him back on probation after more time in local custody. I am not eager to crowd state prison with small time drug dealers, especially if the defendant’s story was truthful. I told the defense attorney, “Bring me letters from the drug programs attended by the defendant since I first released him, attesting to his character and lack of drug use. If that can be proved, I’ll give him one year in county jail instead of the state prison sentence.” We continued (postponed) the hearing for two weeks. The prosecutor left my courtroom fuming, most likely cursing my gullibility.
Friday night, I woke up several times wondering whether I had been snookered during yesterday’s hearing. The facts were suspicious. Two men in a car at 2:30 a.m. with a large amount of meth, one man throwing meth out of the window, and the driver with a lengthy prison history involving the sale of drugs. The angry prosecutor was probably right to be furious with me.
What’s a judge to do when they have doubts about a ruling? If I’m wrong about the law, a higher court can overturn my ruling. But if I’m wrong interpreting the facts, I could wrongly send someone to prison. I could alternatively release someone who will go back out on the streets and commit crimes again because I misjudged their character. Luckily, Friday’s case involved drugs and not someone who commits violent acts.
On Saturday, I went walking with a prosecutor friend. She has been my friend since long before I became a judge, and I trust her. I asked her about my ruling, and she wondered, “What did the prosecutor put on as evidence to show that the defendant/driver knew that his passenger had drugs in his backpack?” “Knowledge” is an essential element to prove someone was in possession of drugs. In my case, the defendant denied he knew that the stranger he was helping had drugs in his backpack. The only evidence to the contrary was that he slowed his car and didn’t stop right away when his passenger hurled drugs out of the car’s passenger window. Is that enough for me to sentence someone to nine years in state prison?
This conversation with my friend was technically an ethical violation. However, my friend was not connected with any of the parties. She is assigned to a courthouse twenty miles away from mine and is in a specialized unit that doesn’t handle narcotics cases. I am sure that I am not the only judge who relies upon long-term friendships, regardless whether prosecution or defense, to talk over knotty legal issues. It is all about trust.
Yesterday, I was sent a different type of trial from Major Narcotics, a special unit within the district attorney’s office. The prosecutors in the unit work closely with narcotic task forces operating across county lines on wiretaps and surveillances. A middle-aged defendant was stopped by the police, and the home of his son ultimately searched. The son’s house contained twenty kilos of methamphetamine (over forty-five pounds), a large amount of heroin in the dishwasher and refrigerator, and packaging materials such as baggies and a scale. The experts will opine that the finding of these materials together demonstrates that the drugs were possessed for the purpose of sale.
The defense attorney stated, “My client doesn’t want any offer. All of the drugs belonged to my client’s son. Just because my client had the garage door opener to his son’s house and was seen several times entering and leaving, doesn’t mean that my client knew his son was selling narcotics.”
The defense attorney asked the prospective jurors today, “Have you ever been in possession of house keys belonging to a neighbor or friend? Does that mean you are accepting criminal responsibility for any contraband found in the house?” Naturally, the majority of jurors had cared for other houses and held keys not belonging to them. And, of course, they said that they would never think they are criminally responsible for items of contraband later found in the house.