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 41.
A fourteen-day gang murder trial arrived in my court. We need to hold a hearing on the circumstances of the defendant’s murder confession. Deciding whether the defendant was “coerced” into confessing by police officers is the issue. Did the detectives threaten him, promise leniency, or promise other benefits?
The detectives testified they did their best to create the “feel” of a comfortable and calm setting even though it was behind bars where the defendant was serving a state prison sentence on a different case. Detectives brought the defendant to a prison employee break room and told the defendant from the beginning, “We are from LAPD and would like to interview you about something. Whenever you want to go back to your cell, you just tell us, we’ll let the guards know and we’ll take you right back.” To which the defendant replied, “Yeah.” The entire conversation was tape-recorded. I listened to the recording and didn’t hear evidence of coercion.
One more issue is understanding whether the defendant’s supposed low mental functioning played a role in him deciding to confess. I am skeptical that the defendant is really low-functioning. He is not swift, but smart enough to try to blame an accomplice for holding the AK-47. If a defendant is too smart, he will not commit this type of murder, shooting point-blank at an innocent person without a reason.
The potential testimony of a transgendered prostitute occupied the rest of the day. She is a beautiful, dark-haired woman, six feet tall, dressed in a tight-fitting leopard blouse displaying deep cleavage. She identified the defendant as the shooter in both a photographic lineup and while testifying under oath at the preliminary hearing. Now she claims that she perjured herself at the preliminary hearing because she was threatened by the investigating officer.
According to her attorney, “This investigating officer was giving her money from police funds to live on. She exchanged sexual favors with him for those funds. She was threatened by the investigating officer into making the identification because the officer sometimes held a gun to her head.”
Sounds far-fetched, right? Wait! The investigating officer in this case was just fired for similar behavior involving dishonesty and accusations of a sexual nature with witnesses. What now? The prosecutor needs to decide whether he can prove his case without using her as a witness.
When I was LAPD inspector general, I reviewed every disciplinary action against an employee between 1996 and 1999. There were several thousand each year. I was shocked by how much serious misconduct was papered over. Officers with pending disciplinary actions were allowed to resign and claim pensions. Officers kept their jobs after a thirty-day suspension for offenses such as filing a false insurance claim. Cases involving dishonest officers were often not referred for possible prosecution.
The LAPD disciplinary system seemed personal. When a charge such as rudeness is made against a police officer by a member of the public, high-level supervisors in Internal Affairs decide whether or not a full investigation against the accused officer will be opened. If it does proceed, it won’t always be thorough or objective. I saw versions of the following: “I like Jim. He had my back when we were patrolling the streets together years ago. True, his wife, also an officer, claims he beat her last night, and she immediately told her sergeant when she came in to work this morning. True, his wife has visible bruises on her face. But we don’t have to contact their local police department in the suburbs and have Jim arrested. We’ll just handle this ourselves. Sounds like my buddy needs some counseling.” My experience with the unchecked power and arbitrariness of the LAPD disciplinary system was discouraging.
A huddle in the court anteroom between the prosecutor and defense attorney before the trial starts usually means they are going to try to settle the case or new evidence was discovered by one side over the weekend. Sure enough, when the defendant was brought out of custody, the prosecutor said, “We think we’ve come to a resolution about the case, Your Honor. The defendant will agree to plead for thirty-nine years.”
The defense attorney had done her homework by documenting the detective’s bad acts that resulted in his firing. No prosecutor wants to put that type of evidence before a jury. Even though the defendant used the gun in another crime a few days after the murder and admitted on tape that it was his gun and that he did the shooting, the prosecutor didn’t feel comfortable he would get a conviction without using the eyewitness.
Thus, the plea bargain. The deal will allow the defendant to be released when he is in his mid-fifties. Not the best result for a prosecutor. This defendant seems unusually cold. It is hard to imagine approaching an innocent stranger and shooting him directly in the face, just to please “homies” (fellow gang members) and gain status in the gang.
How often do I see a “dirty” police officer derail a case? Perhaps three to five times in sixteen years as a judge. What will the prosecutor’s office do with this information about the officer? The trial is over, and attorneys are off to other cases. The officer’s name will be entered into a database in the District Attorney’s Office which prosecutors are required to search for future cases. The district attorney’s office generally does not go back and search for other cases in which this officer testified and to try to figure out whether perjured testimony played a role in old convictions. That bothers me. Who knows how many times a defense attorney heard a seemingly incredible story by a witness, a story of harassment and sexual improprieties by that same lead detective, but dismissed the story as preposterous?
The role of a judge in this situation is difficult. I want to write a letter to the head district attorney and public defender as well as the LAPD Chief of Police describing what happened. That could get me into major trouble. I would be accused of embroilment, getting overly and personally involved in a criminal case. I could be disciplined by the Commission on Judicial Performance. It could even result in prosecutors not wanting to come to my court because I stuck my nose into a process that belongs to them alone.
Critics accuse judges of being part of the problem of police misconduct because we don’t aggressively follow up on bad cops. Some judges might turn a blind eye to police misconduct. Is that what I’m doing by not writing a memo to someone about what happened? All judges in this situation face a conundrum.
Before sentencing, the victim’s sister wanted to speak. That is allowed by the Victims’ Bill of Rights, and it’s a good thing. When a family loses a loved one to violence, there can never be complete closure. For some, there is satisfaction in addressing the person who caused the damage and saying something they hope will resonate throughout a defendant’s time in custody. Here, the victim’s sister spoke through tears: “We have a small family. I totally loved my baby brother.” Turning to the defendant she said, “You will be in prison for a long time, but you will someday get out. My family and I feel like we are also behind bars, but forever.” I don’t know if the defendant was listening.
Postscript: The transgendered prostitute eyewitness in the murder trial we settled yesterday was sitting in our courtroom this morning during the plea. In the row in front of her sat a handsome, well-built young man representing himself on a gun charge. Usually, he came to court with a woman friend, but today he was alone. The transgendered witness looked alluring. The defendant in the other case moved his seat directly behind her and struck up a conversation. After a few seconds, the two of them appeared to exchange cell numbers.