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 43.
Am I being manipulated by the City Attorney’s Office to try a case for political reasons? The prosecutor said, “We’re not going to be able” to offer the settlement. It sounded like the possibility of a settlement was discussed at the highest level of her office and rejected. Regardless of the verdict, the elected City Attorney can tell the community, “I did the best I could. It was the jury that made the decision.”
“If a pharmacist doesn’t read a prescription correctly, and instead of giving a customer twenty milligrams of a drug gives the person 200 milligrams, and the customer becomes ill, is it reasonable that the pharmacist just made a simple mistake?” This is a smart question for a prosecutor to ask the jurors. When a mistake is made about something important that can risk someone’s life, jurors don’t like it. This includes measuring pharmacy ingredients or constructing a building without the correct amount of rebar. Prospective jurors want those types of transactions checked and double-checked.
This trial turns the normal process of jury selection on its head. Usually, the prosecution wants law enforcement-oriented jurors and the defense wants counter-culture liberals. Here, the prosecution is excusing jurors who admire law enforcement and don’t have a problem with guns. The defense is excusing more liberal jurors. They may be hostile to gun ownership and a defendant who was careless in selling guns. Liberal jurors might not have a problem with holding the gun store owner criminally liable.
Opening statements begin on Monday.
The defendant was “careless, complacent, and got caught.” Those were the prosecutor’s first words to the jury this morning in her opening statement. The prosecutor continued, “Gun dealers are highly regulated. There’s a good reason for that. No one wants guns to go to the wrong person.” The City Attorney’s Office is taking this case seriously; there must be a half dozen employees of that office watching the trial during their working hours.
The defense also has a coterie of spectators, all men with skullcaps, and some young people, possibly the defendant’s children. Defense counsel’s opening statement claimed, “The female civilian security officer pretended that she was a sworn peace officer authorized to buy the guns. She even signed the documents under penalty of perjury that she was a sworn police officer.”
My court reporter’s perspective of the facts surprised me. Liz is a single mother of three teens. She is not usually judgmental this early in a trial. But she remarked at lunch, “I think the City Attorney’s case is really strong. It’s obvious that the defendant ignored the rules and sold guns to an unauthorized person. I was convinced after hearing only the opening statements.”
Before the trial resumed this morning, there were fireworks in my court. A late defendant arrived with a walker. In his sixties, with gray hair and unsteady hands, he represents himself on the charge of failing to register as a sex offender. The prosecutor, middle-aged but with spring in his step and usually good-natured, arrived in a nasty mood. According to the prosecutor, “This defendant has been a problem for years. He insists that he is not required to register, but he
has been since 1992. He even went to prison for failing to register as a sex offender. The judge at the preliminary hearing told him that unless he produced a valid sex registration card at his first appearance in my court, his bail would be revoked, and he will be returned to custody.”
Great. This is taking place five minutes before my trial resumes. The defendant’s long-winded explanation and thick file for me to review were going to take time to unravel. Bottom line: he did not have a sex registration card to show me.
The prosecutor was adamant. “The earlier judge said the defendant would be returned to jail today if he didn’t have his card.” I was equally adamant. “Just because another judge says something will happen doesn’t bind me.”
I am wary of jailing someone for the wrong reason. This defendant was ready to sue anyone and everyone. Just because the prosecutor had a long history with the defendant doesn’t mean I must bow to his wishes while my jury was waiting. I ordered everyone back in two days at 8:30 a.m. Steaming, the prosecutor left. My staff has complained that I tend to cut people off, and they are probably right. I care more about inconveniencing jurors than anyone else in the courtroom. We’re all getting paid; the jurors are donating their time, and I don’t want to waste it.
The jury trial of the gun dealer continued. Why would the defendant put his career on the line to sell to a non-authorized person? The business was going well, and the defendant was a respected firearms dealer within the law enforcement community. Defendants do stupid things, but people who have no criminal record and a business to protect rarely commit crimes. If he wanted to sell a gun illegally, why would he keep an easily accessed record of the transaction? Why not sell guns out the back door?
The defense did not put on any evidence. The defendant did not testify. Likely, they thought the civilian buyer’s law enforcement uniform was sufficient to show that the defendant made an honest mistake. But was it a reasonable mistake? That’s the question for the jury. If it was a reasonable mistake, the jury must vote “not guilty.” If it was an unreasonable mistake, the defendant should be convicted.