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 39.
A week has gone by, and not one jury trial has arrived. My afternoons have been spent editing the statewide judges’ magazine, The Bench. If I hadn’t been an attorney, I would have chosen investigative journalism. I am insatiably curious, and my quest to live adventurously and write creatively fits well with journalism. I avidly read many magazines: The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Afar, Economist, Health, People, even AARP. I often think about the types of articles I want to read, and, conversely, which articles cause me to lose interest. I have tried to enliven the judges’ magazine with human interest features about judges’ lives, such as our state’s first Muslim judge, and an advice column for new judges.
One article I wrote recently concerned bi-racial and multi-ethnic jurors. Judges are required to monitor races and ethnicities closely during jury selection to make sure that attorneys are not disqualifying jurors based upon race or ethnicity alone. Accusations of attorney bias are frequent, and judges have to describe for the record on appeal both the race of the challenged juror and whether an attorney showed bias in excluding that juror. Other judges, including me, find it next to impossible sometimes to know the race or ethnicity of the juror before us, even knowing their last name.
Many in our population are not only of different races or ethnicities but also are descendants of mixed-race parents. The article engendered spirited discussion among judges, especially those whose partners are of a different race, and whose children are mixed race or ethnicity. That is the type of article I want to publish.
A few days ago, I began the story of how I find myself in a judge’s robe today. That tale described the end of the promising careers of courageous police officers who reported fellow officers for perjury and were then hounded from their jobs. The case coincided with Norman’s and my decision to give up our Sacramento law practice and return to Los Angeles. We were each an only child, our parents were getting older, and they wanted to be a part of the life of our two-year-old daughter.
It was a good move. When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1980, my criminal defense background made me an anomaly. While some women practiced criminal law, few had handled such serious cases as the Mexican Mafia case in Sacramento. Coincidentally, two men charged with the serial killing of ten women, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, also known as the “Hillside Stranglers,” had just been arrested. Well-known attorney Gerald Chaleff was appointed to represent Buono. As this was a death-penalty case, Buono was entitled to two attorneys. Through an introduction by an intermediary, I met Gerry, and, as he has often said, “I couldn’t get rid of her. She never left.”
There were many Los Angeles attorneys who could have assisted Gerry in this case, but he had a specific requirement. Who better than a young woman to sit next to and whisper to a man accused of ten heinous and sadistic rape/strangulation murders? But few women had significant criminal law experience and also had no thriving law practice to give up in order to devote two years full-time to this case. At the time, no one realized that this would end up being the longest trial in Los Angeles County history. It was, in effect, ten murder trials conducted sequentially. As I was appointed by the County of Los Angeles to represent Buono, my paycheck was secure for the length of the trial.
While I deepened my criminal law exposure and learned how to establish an ongoing relationship with a psychopath, the experience was unsettling. It was difficult to sit next to him for two years, knowing that my every interaction with him was being studied. I pretended to be on good terms with him, bantering and smiling. Some of the time, he was making vulgar remarks and issuing harsh critiques not just of me but of our legal team. He liked to provoke arguments between attorneys and investigators working on his behalf. At the time, and for years afterward, I resented being the woman who was always asked by the media, “What does it feel like to sit next to a serial killer?” Even though I participated equally in the presentation of witnesses and arguments, Gerry was always asked substantive questions about legal issues. Upon reflection as an avid news consumer, I too would have been interested in that subject if I saw a woman sitting next to a serial killer and appearing to enjoy his company.
Ultimately, Gerry and I won the case. This may seem an odd way to describe the fact that Buono was convicted of nine of ten murders. Yet, over a period of several hours, the jury decided that Buono should be spared the death penalty. This was unheard of in cases where someone was convicted of multiple murders, but we’ll never know what the jury was thinking. Having spent several months selecting the jurors, and two years looking at each other every day in the courtroom, Buono may have been humanized in their eyes. Was Buono guilty? Probably, but I’m not sure of his exact role. During the trial, I convinced myself that we had a shot at winning. Confronted daily with despicable tales and photos of torture and strangulation by ligature, this was likely my defense mechanism. The prosecutors argued for thirteen days and dismantled our well constructed defense as masterfully as swiping away a meticulously constructed cobweb. I saw the flaws in my reasoning that had likely temporarily overwhelmed my reality.
After the trial, I embarked upon one more death penalty defense case, but my heart wasn’t in it. Representing Buono was exhilarating and would not happen again. Even though my 98 percent effort in the next death penalty case was almost all-encompassing, it didn’t feel the same as the 200 percent effort I usually gave my cases. I realized that I was done with criminal defense, even though I highly admired all who continued to fight year after year, suffering abuse from clients and disdain from the public. Criminal defense attorneys, in my opinion, especially those who work for public agencies, are the unsung heroes of the criminal justice system.
I still loved criminal law. What was next? Watching the prosecutors in the Hillside Strangler trial engage in multiple whispered conferences with investigators and police officers kindled my curiosity. I wanted in on those conversations. I wanted to become a prosecutor. Again, I needed to volunteer to prove that such a vehement defense advocate could be a successful prosecutor.