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 32.
The defense attorney is droning on and on, questioning the criminalist who weighed the meth and found 20,505 grams, more than twenty kilos (over forty pounds). Everyone in the courtroom, including the jurors, has tuned out. The defense attorney asked, “Was the scale used to weigh the meth battery operated or plugged into the wall?” Who cares? The defense is that the defendant is just a nice father who liked to visit his son. Does it matter whether what the narcotics weighed, whether every speck of meth was analyzed, or the scale calibrated every day?
The defense attorney is making inconsistent arguments, a bad defense tactic. I can hear the prosecutor arguing to the jury, “What is the defense here? Is it that the defendant had nothing to with these narcotics? Or, the defendant could have been connected with the narcotics, but they weren’t weighed and tested properly.” Juries hate inconsistent defenses. We all laugh at the defense argument, “My client was not there. He has an alibi. But if you don’t believe the alibi and think he was there, then he was drunk.” Inconsistent defenses scream that the defense attorney is either inexperienced or just bad. I’m tempted to call the attorneys to the bench, out of the presence of the jury, and ask the defense attorney, “Why are you wasting our time?” I want to point out to her that inconsistent defenses are deadly for a defense attorney. But she would be angry with me for intervening, and the prosecutor would also be angry that I am helping the defense attorney. I kept my mouth shut and seethed quietly.
In addition to my own cases, I attempted to settle another case that was supposed to go to trial today. The female defendant, with a deeply lined face reflecting a hard thirty-eight years, possessed a sock with a heavy metal object inside informally called a “slungshot.” This is commonly carried by homeless parolees who live on the street and don’t want to carry a knife or gun for self-protection. A “slungshot” can be considered an illegal deadly weapon, and this defendant has been in custody for six months pending trial.
The prosecutor wants to give her thirty-two months in prison. “This defendant has two prior violent felonies and is on parole. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t try to use the weapon on anyone. It’s bad enough that she had one.” I’m sure the prosecutor has never seen firsthand the hordes of humanity stuffed onto skid row sidewalks: the mentally ill, parolees, withered drug addicts of all ages, and down-and-out homeless. If I were living on skid row, I surely would carry a defensive weapon. The defense attorney said, “My client will agree to only sixteen months in prison. Anything more than that is just too high for someone just holding a weapon used for defense on the streets.”
“Nope,” the prosecutor replied. “Sixteen months is too low.” When the case reached a trial court, the defendant was offered one year in the county jail, a better deal than she originally wanted. This settlement makes no sense for courts or prosecutors. By having the offer get better each court day, then making a sensational offer on the day of trial, defense attorneys resist settling cases early. Defense attorneys tell their clients, “Sit tight. Don’t accept the offer. Wait until the end.” The public defender assigned to my court strings cases along until the end, gets assigned to trial with a new prosecutor, and almost always settles his cases for a better offer than the ones made by Cora.
“Why was yesterday’s case of the female parolee with the ‘slungshot’ settled yesterday for a lower offer than what was offered the day before?” I asked Cora.
“We didn’t have enough DAs to try the case.”
Really? It was more important to go to trial on a couple who owned a marijuana dispensary than the parolee who prosecutors claimed committed two earlier violent crimes and was carrying a deadly weapon?
On trial next door is an experienced police officer charged with lying in a police report. Patrolling the streets one night, this male training officer was paired for the first time with a female rookie. They came upon two subjects, both drunk, standing next to a car. Ultimately, one of the subjects was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. In order to successfully prosecute someone for driving under the influence, however, a subject must have been seen behind the wheel driving the car.
When the rookie officer and the training officer got back to the police department, the training officer began writing the report, including statements the rookie thought were untrue. The training officer wrote in the official report that the defendant was seen driving and was pulled over. The trainer also wrote, “The driver was given a series of field sobriety tests which he failed.” According to the rookie, however, no one was seen driving. The car was already stopped when the officers came upon it, and no sobriety tests were given. The rookie was shaken, especially when her training officer left a space in the arrest report for her to sign, swearing to the truth of its contents. Excusing herself to go to the bathroom, the rookie instead went looking for a supervisor. This is a dangerous situation for a new officer beginning a career. Having spent almost three years as LAPD Inspector General, I know how difficult it is for one police officer to report another for misconduct involving dishonesty. The courtroom next door is filled with police officers using their time off to show support for the accused training officer. The rookie officer will take the stand this afternoon and explain what happened from her perspective. And staring at her with hostility will be an audience of police officer antagonists.
It’s hard to imagine a training officer making up facts to support an arrest and expecting a trainee to go along with them. It’s also impossible to imagine a rookie officer, knowing how devastating it is to be considered a snitch by fellow officers, accusing a training officer of such serious, criminal misconduct if it is untrue. A rookie has already been through the Police Academy, during which ethics classes impress upon new officers the importance of integrity in policing. A consequence of turning in a fellow officer, besides ostracism, is that fellow officers may slow their response to her radio calls for help. That’s beastly, but it happens.
I once prosecuted a female LAPD officer for stealing a large amount of money. She was in a hotel room waiting for the coroner and guarding the body of a dead Korean businessman. He was lying on the bed where he had died of a heart attack. While the officer waited for the coroner, she rifled through the pockets of the businessman’s suit hanging in the closet. She found a wad of sequential $100 bills that the deceased recently withdrew from a bank. After snatching the money, she dashed into the bathroom and shut the door. All this was observed by her partner, a male rookie, working with her for the first time. During that trial, there were no police officers in the audience to show support for the accused officer.
Why? Most police officers strongly disapprove of stealing from a member of the public. Accusations of theft don’t bring sympathy from fellow officers, especially when facts are clear. The female officer charged with theft did not appear sympathetic. I hope it was not about her being a female. During her trial in the 1990s, the LAPD was criticized by male officers for hiring too many females to fulfill real or imaginary quotas. The jury quickly convicted this officer of felony grand theft, and she was fired. Only her defense attorney disagreed with the verdict.
Closing arguments are finally taking place in my own trial involving the narcotics conspiracy. The attorneys are thorough but not dynamic. Each has PowerPoint presentations. PowerPoints can keep wandering attorneys on point. In this case, it’s not working so well. The defense attorney is a “talker.” She emphasizes over and over that the defendant is merely a good father far removed from the narcotics business.