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 31.
The female nurse caretaker I wrote about on January 25 was before me again this morning. She was accused of embezzling over $1 million from a 101-year-old victim. She hired one of the best criminal defense attorneys and, in negotiations with the prosecutor, whittled her maximum sentence down from close to twenty years in state prison to the current maximum of eight.
This case will go to trial soon. The defense attorney, who has appeared before me in other serious cases, asked me for an indicated sentence. In other words, he wants me to evaluate the case and consider undercutting the prosecutor’s offer. I said, “I don’t have much sympathy for a woman who fleeced her elderly patient. I’d probably give her not less than five or six years in state prison, especially since the nurse used her patient’s money to build a house in Mexico and will never pay the money back.”
I like this criminal defense attorney. He is about my age, curly grayish hair, fit, smart, and reminds me of my husband, Norman. He is friendly and flattering toward me, and I’m not sure it’s because he wants something from me or genuinely likes me. It’s hard for a judge to evaluate any attorney’s sincerity. Almost everyone in the courthouse is nice, even obsequious, to judges.
Prosecutors’ recommended sentences for stealing often are motivated by whether a defendant can repay the stolen money. That makes me irate. Understandably, victims want their money back. They want a defendant to stay out of custody and work to return stolen money, instead of being locked up. Prosecutors often oblige. I feel tugged from both sides. Poor defendants who steal large amounts of money are usually sent to prison. The victim will never be repaid. Other defendants promise to work hard to repay the victims; stay out of custody, but the victim never gets repaid. The penalties for stealing large amounts of money are low. The highest term for “grand theft” is three years, served at fifty percent. Even if the value, as here, is over $1 million, only four extra years at fifty percent can be added.
After months of haggling, I sent a second case out for trial this morning. Two defendants, once married to each other, with no criminal records, ran a marijuana dispensary. Their teenage son lived with them during that period. Confusing regulations abound for the marijuana business. These defendants, however, were operating outside the law. Concentrated cannabis and manufacturing materials were found throughout the house where the family lived. Along with the drug offenses, they were also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor (their teenage son).
The case had been through at least six different prosecutors, most likely because no one was eager to try a dispensary case. Similar to another case I described on January 27, this male defendant also has cancer. A note in the trial prosecutor’s file from Rob, the DA supervisor, again ordered: “Do not settle this case without the head deputy’s approval.”
The prosecution’s offer is lenient toward the female defendant: “She may plead guilty to a misdemeanor, a minor charge, attend one year of parenting classes, and then have her case dismissed.” She wants the offer—but she is not allowed to accept it unless her exhusband also accepts the offer made to him. Prosecutors often insist that co-defendants plead as a “package.” They want to avoid one defendant taking the deal and later testifying at their co-defendant’s trial that the co-defendant had nothing to do with the crime. Should that happen, and a jury finds a co-defendant not guilty, the prosecution cannot go back and prosecute the first defendant for lying to help the second defendant on the witness stand. The husband’s attorney hated his client’s offer: “Your Honor, my client can’t plead guilty to one year in the county jail. It’s a death sentence for him considering his cancer treatments. Everyone knows the medical care in the jail is horrendous. Isn’t there something you can do?”
I already had been burned once by Rob for suggesting an attorney go over his head to get a better offer. One year in jail was not in line with other sentences in marijuana dispensary cases. As I wrote on January 27, I knew I wouldn’t be as aggressive in fighting for the next marijuana defendant, and I did feel ashamed.
I suggested a new approach, “Why don’t you offer to have your client agree to spend his 180 days in a ‘private jail’? That way he could get his medical treatments.” These are jails connected with small city police departments that are much cleaner and safer for someone without a criminal record. Private jails are a source of revenue for small cities and charge around $3000 per month for the privilege of sleeping in their cells. I cannot imagine why Rob would object to a defendant with cancer spending his custody time in a city jail. I am such a hypocrite. I just complained that a well-heeled theft defendant should not be able to avoid jail by paying back all the funds he stole. Now I’m suggesting that a marijuana dispensary defendant with money avoid the crowded and filthy county jail by paying $3000 a month for a private jail cell. What about a poor person with cancer? When I was younger, I would stew about these inequities and chatter to everyone around me about how upset they made me. Now I just move on.
My narcotics trial lumbers along. No question the defendant’s son’s house was a “stash pad” where massive amounts of meth and heroin were packaged for sale. The house even had a dozen red cylindrical fire extinguishers cut lengthwise, exposing the meth smuggled inside them. There were also large yellow cans of menudo, a Mexican staple, stuffed with meth, some open, and others sealed as though they just arrived from the cannery. The only issue is whether the defendant knew what his son was doing and whether he was an integral member of the conspiracy.