In Part 62, Judge Mader details her sentencing logic in the case of a defendant who claims he was “sleep driving.” She also discusses challenges in trials that rely on Spanish-language interpretation.


June 23

A jury trial with polite and competent attorneys arrived this morning. The charges are assault with a knife, making a criminal threat, and dissuading a witness from testifying. The bald defendant looks dapper in the tailored blue shirt from the Public Defender’s Office clothing closet. But when he opens his mouth, I see irregular and discolored teeth with large gaps. At trial, a defendant usually cleans up and gets a conventional haircut. Even defendants with skin covered with gang tattoos avoid tattooing their neck and face to prevent gang slogans from peeking out from a long-sleeved dress shirt.

This trial is expected to last seven days. No juror complained about the trial’s length. That’s surprising, especially because we start on a Thursday. A trial that begins at the end of the week and continues through the next week is not favored by most jurors. This potential jury panel contains many teachers who have postponed their jury service until after the school year.

June 24

When I’m treated rudely by a stranger on the phone, an undercurrent of disquiet lingers for a few hours. I tell myself, “It’s not my problem. That other person is having a bad day, or they’re just an unpleasant person,” but it’s hard for me to shake feeling upset. When I am treated rudely by an attorney, fortunately not often, I also get rattled. Most attorneys, happily, have figured out that they get farther with sugar than with salt. I was very confrontational in my twenties toward prosecutors and the court, but it clicked in my thirties that having a pleasant demeanor as an advocate ultimately benefits everyone, including the client.

This morning I was again scheduled to sentence the man who wrecked his Ferrari after leading the police on a 2:00 a.m. 100 m.p.h. chase after he was discovered doing donuts in a mid-city intersection. I had continued his sentencing twice, so he could care for his ill wife. Today was the day of reckoning.

The defense attorney had a history of interrupting and arguing with me. It did not affect my sentencing. The defendant’s only record was his conviction for possession for sale of narcotics in Fresno. He was still on probation when he committed this offense. Before the trial, the prosecutor asked for two years in state prison. If a defendant goes to trial and does not testify, as happened here, a trial judge will usually not give a lighter sentence than what was first recommended. Here, facts came out during the trial that gave me a much fuller picture and an opportunity to assess the defendant’s character. After listening to the defendant’s girlfriend and doctor describe his history of sleepwalking, I concluded that he did have a history of driving while asleep. This defendant was trying to outrun the police, endangering the public. His defense was bogus. When someone constructs a false defense, it is a factor I consider in deciding the appropriate sentence.

When I asked the prosecutor to review again the arrest report from the defendant’s Fresno arrest, the defense attorney objected loudly. “With all due respect, Your Honor, don’t you remember that last time we were here the prosecutor didn’t want to let you read the report? You are committing a crime if you read the report.”

What? I need to learn everything I can about a defendant before sentencing. Earlier crimes may be less serious than they appear. The opposite can also be true. The defense attorney was confused. I explained, “I told you earlier that I couldn’t keep the police report in the court file because it becomes a public record open to anyone. I needed to return the report to the prosecutor. You are mistaken about me committing a crime.” The prosecutor chimed in to defend me. I should have been harsher when the defense attorney falsely accused me of a criminal act. Another judge might have held him in contempt. I was invested in letting his words wash over me and not getting rattled. I wondered why a defense attorney would make such a serious accusation against a judge just about to sentence his client. A pet peeve of judges is hearing attorneys say “…with all due respect, Your Honor.” After I hear that phrase, I know I am going to be insulted. The phrase is almost always uttered sarcastically. Sure enough, after the insult, I asked the attorney to please not use “with all due respect.” And how did he respond? He began his next sentence, “With all due respect.” Attorneys know it’s impossible to get into trouble for saying such an obsequious and respectful phrase. After insulting me, the attorney asked for leniency and probation for his client. Having reviewed my intentions with fellow judges, I was comfortable with my decision to impose less than the prosecutor offered before trial: sixteen months, the low term, in state prison. The defendant will spend eight actual months in prison because he will receive half off for good behavior. Even though I undercut the prosecution’s offer of two years in state prison, their pre-trial offer, I did not engender good will from the defense.

According to my bailiff, the defendant cussed me out as she brought him into the jail. “The judge is a bitch. She will get hers.” Was this a threat? It is not unusual for defendants to be angry at their judge when they are sentenced and want to blow off steam. I am glad he lives in a different part of the state. I could feel the reverberations of all the ill will and tension for the next several hours.

In the afternoon, I continued with my professional attorneys selecting the jury for my next trial. We had a jury and alternates picked quickly, and the trial testimony will begin on Monday morning.

June 27

An assault on skid row in downtown Los Angeles can be one of the more tedious jury trials to conduct. The testimony will be presented slowly because all witnesses need Spanish language interpreters. Several of the witnesses’ memories are compromised by ingesting too many illegal substances. They are understandably unable to articulate chronologies from events a year ago. In such assault cases, the defense almost always claims “self-defense.”

All I can understand is that there was a heated argument about a borrowed cell phone that was not returned, a punch to the head of one witness that rendered him unconscious, and a stab to the armpit of another victim that punctured his lung. No one, including the victim, wants to come to court. The prosecutor is frantically trying to corral his witnesses.

It’s the job of the jurors to sort everything out. The jurors are mainly Spanish speaking. I have instructed them that the official record is the translation offered by the court-certified Spanish language interpreter. “Since many of you speak Spanish, if you think the official translation is wrong, please raise your hand right away. Tell us why you think there’s a mistake. We can straighten it out. Also, if you have questions of a witness, be sure to raise your hand to get your question before the witness leaves the courtroom.” I’ve never had a juror try to correct the translation.

This afternoon the prosecution’s chief witness, the victim of the stabbing, described in detail his crystal meth habit. I could never detail an incident that took place in seconds one year ago. That’s a lot to ask of a witness who uses meth every day.