In Part 66, Judge Mader details a dramatic interaction with a person representing himself and offers addenda to several earlier entries.
A violent confrontation occurred in court this morning with a man representing himself. The inmate, charged with battery on a police officer, had twenty-three documented incidents of violent, aggressive behavior toward custodial officers and refusing to follow police orders. Twice he refused to leave his cell to come to court and had to be forcibly taken.
Although the jail took away the inmate’s privileges, such as leaving his cell to use the law library, a defendant may still represent himself. The defendant had acted politely and appropriately in my court. If the defendant had disrupted the court, I would take away his right to represent himself. Some inmates still want to represent themselves even if they can’t use the law library at the jail. I didn’t have to wait long.
The defendant began quietly. Ten minutes later, the situation deteriorated. I ran out of time to continue listening to him and said he would have to come back in a day or two. My jury trial was starting. The prosecutor offered the defendant a favorable deal for three years in state prison, to be served at half-time.
Unable to calmly accept either the two-day continuance or contemplate his offer, the defendant insisted on describing his mistreatment by deputies at the jail. Despite all the problems he created at the jail with his hostility and aggression, he was not considered a mental health prisoner. The defendant immediately became mouthy, and yelled, “You’re a fucking bitch. I have the Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJP) handbook with me. You’ll be hearing from them. The jail personnel are prejudiced against me. They are all racists.”
Increasing in intensity, the defendant began yelling at the top of his lungs. He was quietly asked to leave by two deputies in court but refused to get up. Reinforcements were called in. I asked the court reporter, “Please continue to type. We’ll have a record when I permanently take away the defendant’s privilege to represent himself.” She later told me, “I kept typing, even though the last time this happened a different defendant turned over the ten-foot counsel table and it just missed me.” I had to leave the bench because my presence was aggravating the defendant.
Ten deputies were needed to subdue him. Luckily, a sergeant arrived with a video camera and taped the ensuing ten minutes. The deputies brought in a safety chair―sometimes called the “Hannibal Lector” chair―into which the defendant was strapped. He was gingerly moved, all the time resisting, to the new chair.
In the middle of the transfer process, the defendant started to scream, “Police brutality! You’ve hurt my back! I can’t move! I demand an ambulance!”
All the while he was being strapped into the chair by the deputies on camera. Still screaming, he was wheeled out of the courtroom past jurors waiting for a different trial to start. The deputies were legally required to call an ambulance to see if the injury was authentic.
A multi-hour interview of the apartment manager defendant when he was arrested was played for the jurors. Not familiar with crime, the defendant didn’t realize the seriousness of his actions as he told the police what happened. He gave what he thought was a winning story: he was threatened by gang members to erase the video. He was scared for himself and his wife and followed the gang’s instructions.
In his interview, the defendant continued, “From the beginning, I was scared that the same people who committed the murder with a gun would turn their gun on me if I didn’t erase the video. I am an only child, raised by a single mother, and have never been in trouble. I was excited about this job because it paid more than anything I’ve ever earned, and it came with a free apartment. The job was a twofer because my wife would also get a job as a manager and we’d be able to save money. The last thing I wanted was to have to return to live with my wife at my mother’s house again.”
Socializing with the gang members at the complex was a stupid idea. The defendant was in way over his head. He thought friendliness toward the gang members would make his job easier, but the opposite happened. He told the officers during the interview that he tried to enforce the rules at the apartment by towing away an illegally parked car, but the car’s owner and friends threatened to beat him up. He was only saved because a couple of gang members living at the apartment told their associate, “Don’t mess with that guy. He’s the manager. He’s cool.”
The jury needs to figure out what the defendant was thinking when he erased the tape. As no one can ever peer into another’s brain, the jury needed to look for clues as to the defendant’s mindset. That’s called circumstantial evidence. A classic example of circumstantial evidence is: Someone comes into the courthouse wearing a raincoat covered with drops of water. The logical inference based on the circumstances is that it was raining outside, even though no one saw it raining. Yes, there could be another explanation, that the person with the raincoat walked through spurting sprinklers on his path into the building. But is that a reasonable explanation?
The defendant was on the witness stand for most of the day during the jury trial. He stuck to his story. “I felt threatened by the gang atmosphere at the apartments. Two men with ski masks and another with a gun said I had to erase the tape or be killed.” The ski-masked man was new. I thought the defendant earlier said that the threat had come by way of text. It feels like the defendant is embellishing his story to impress the jurors with how threatened he felt. The defense has a problem proving that the defendant was in “immediate” fear for his safety. There were always alternatives such as moving out, asking the police for assistance, and looking for a new job.
The defendant stayed at the apartment as the manager for about ten months following the murder. The prosecution will argue that he couldn’t have been that frightened if he stayed there. The defendant testified, “I had reached a détente with the gang members until one month ago, when they realized I was testifying for the prosecution against the murderers shown in the videotape. Then my wife and I were accosted by persons who called us ‘rats,’ another word for ‘snitches.’ We moved out and now I’m unemployed.”
Today we listened to the closing arguments by the attorneys. The prosecutor has given a strong and organized argument, understated, emphasizing that the defendant apartment manager was trying to help his tenants whom he also considered his friends by destroying the videotape.
The defense attorney was fiery in his comments, “My client made the decision that he would rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.” In other words, the defendant made a reasonable decision. He thought it would be better to erase the video and be judged later by a jury than be killed by a gang member and carried by six pallbearers.
An addendum to two earlier diary entries:
On March 30 the CJP issued a “stinger” letter to admonish a judge who had a service dog she was training on the bench. This arrangement had been approved by her supervising judge at the court as well as the statewide agency that runs the courts. The charged judge appealed to the California Supreme Court which took up her case. The Supreme Court ordered that the CJP either withdraw the letter of reprimand or explain to the Supreme Court why they wouldn’t. The CJP withdrew the letter today. A win for the good guys. Judges finally see the high court stepping in to slap down the CJP for overreaching.
Next, on July 1, I asked whether it’s possible for a judge to manipulate a jury trial to get the result he wants in a case. A judge told me today about a situation in which he did just that. The charge was first-degree burglary, and the defendant was guilty of the crime. He entered an inhabited house intending to steal. But he also entered a bedroom where someone was sleeping under a blanket. He touched the lump under the blanket, which turned out to be the chest of a twelve-year-old girl. Even if he did not know whom he was touching, the crime would be treated as a residential burglary with sexual intent if he was convicted. That could expose the defendant, if convicted, to life in prison. My colleague’s jury announced they were hung. Normally, if this happens, a judge will instruct a jury to keep deliberating. This judge was relieved to accept the hung jury and did not send the jury back to continue to deliberate. The judge told me, “The defendant may be offered a more reasonable disposition than life imprisonment if the case is re-tried. And I avoided imposing a life sentence that I didn’t want to impose.”