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 35.
Back from a conference held by the California Judges Association. Connecting with judges from around the state always feels invigorating. Traditionally there’s been a schism between judges from big cities such as Los Angeles and judges from cow counties (they use that term themselves—I’m not insulting them). Los Angeles County judges comprise more than one-third of California judges, and judges from other counties lambast Los Angeles for “sucking up all the air in the room.”
Conversations with colleagues at the conference always revolve around the same subject. “Should we continue doing criminal trials or switch to civil?” Civil attorneys are commonly described as not civil, especially toward each other. There are so many attorneys practicing civil law in Los Angeles, the chances are good that they will never face each other again. Even in a large city like Los Angeles, attorneys who practice criminal law are a small community. The same criminal practitioners see each other in the same courtrooms for decades.
Learning civil law would take me several years to feel comfortable, and then I would be ready to retire. Do I want to spend the next five years learning civil law? On my deathbed, I don’t think I’d ever regret that I didn’t go to civil. Foisting myself in front of litigants who have paid their attorneys $500 per hour for representation feels self indulgent. There I would sit, a judge who doesn’t know what she is doing. I’ve studied criminal law for over forty years, most of that time as a public servant, and the government has invested money in my training. Should I selfishly take that expertise away from newer lawyers and litigants who need it the most, and move to a new area of law just because I want a new challenge?
On the other hand, there is no way to advance in my courthouse. On the Ninth Floor of our building is a group of judges assigned “complex” criminal trials. They devote their entire days to hearing trials. Most lengthy trials are assigned to the Ninth Floor to finish faster. The competent judges on that floor are not more competent than the rest of the felony trial judges in the building. The complex trials can be more interesting—such as a father accused of throwing his four-year-old child off a cliff to avoid paying child support, and a serial murderer nicknamed the “Grim Sleeper.” Once a judge gets an assignment on that floor, they can remain there for the rest of their career. Other felony trial judges, including me, know that it’s unlikely that we’ll be transferred there because there are rarely any openings.
I’ve always liked surprises. I am the first person to rush for the mailbox when I arrive home to see if there’s anything exciting inside. An eternal optimist, I am like the deprived but optimistic young child pawing through a pile of manure on Christmas Day saying, “I just know there’s a pony in there.” Whenever I am not in trial, I look up between 9:00 and 9:30 each morning when my doors swing open, hoping that attorneys will be arriving with the thick court file of an engaging new trial.
A new trial did arrive today. A bald, well-dressed Hispanic man was charged with sexual assault and domestic violence against a woman with whom he had a four-month dating relationship. The defendant, in his forties, earlier agreed to settle the case for five years in state prison and lifetime sex registration. In the middle of taking the plea, he faltered. “I just can’t go ahead and plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” he said.
As we began the trial, the defendant again spoke with his attorney about a deal. It’s hard for me to know why a person wants to plead guilty. Most judges, including me, allow defendants to plead “No lo contendere” or “No contest,” treated the same as a guilty plea, but a defendant never has to acknowledge guilt. In that situation, a judge doesn’t know why the person is pleading.
“No contest” pleas are controversial. Defendants who are not guilty sometimes plead “No contest” to get out of jail. They then regret they have a conviction on their record for something they claim they did not do. It’s not difficult to identify those defendants who are entering a plea just to get released. Their hesitations, lack of enthusiasm, and words such as, “I just don’t want to fight it anymore,” are clues that a defendant is not pleading because he is, in fact, guilty of the charge to which he’s pleading guilty, especially if at every appearance the defendant forcefully maintains his innocence. I always try to read the arrest report closely while the plea is being taken, wondering if this is a show the defendant is putting on, or whether there is strong evidence against him. In the federal system, defendants cannot plead “No contest.” They not only have to plead guilty but tell the judge why they are guilty. I would prefer that system. Most truly innocent persons, in my experience, will “take it all the way” and damn the consequences. I once presided over a gang murder trial in which the defendant, with no prior record and having been in custody for two years, was facing life in prison. He absolutely refused to plead to anything, even when the prosecutor lowered the offer to seven years, highly unusual in a murder case. Fortunately, the jury found that defendant not guilty, even though the surviving victim insisted the defendant pulled the trigger. So much for eyewitness certainty.
The defendant in front of me today seems both eager and reluctant at the same time to enter into a disposition. He does not want to plead to a charge that results in lifetime sex registration.
While he was wavering, I told him, “If you are truly not guilty, you should consider going to trial, as you will always regret that you caved, especially when you have to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life.” This defendant’s maximum exposure is twenty-one years in state prison. By the end of the day the prosecution reduced their offer to three years in prison. Something could be wrong with the prosecutor’s case. At 4 p.m., the three-year offer was sounding good to the defendant, but he wanted to think about it overnight. All of the parties are returning to my court at 8:30 tomorrow morning for his decision.
The defendant in my jury trial arrived. Again, he said, “I’m ready to enter a plea for the three-year offer.” We began to take the plea. In the middle of the proceeding, the defendant began to cry and said again, “I just can’t plead to something I did not do.” We stopped again and called for the jury. I am wondering whether the defendant is not guilty. He faces a maximum of twenty-one years, is turning down three, and already has spent one year in custody for which he’d receive double credit, the same as most other in-custody inmates.