In Part 69, Judge Mader discusses the elements a judge must weigh when sentencing defendants with a mental illness or those who have committed crimes during a psychotic break. The Judge also shares a few courtroom management strategies.
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An irate, screaming attorney walked into court as we were beginning to handle his client’s case. His client was already in state prison serving a sixteen-year sentence. Understandably, counsel must have been confused to hear his client’s case being heard by the court without him or his client being present. I would normally never do such a thing. An attorney has the right to represent his client at every step of the proceedings. But the attorney exploded with anger without trying to figure out what was happening.
In this case, the state prison system notified the court that our calculation of the number of days the defendant had been in prison was wrong. The state prison system always checks the sentences of prisoners to make sure they are not “over-detaining” a prisoner. Our court received a “Dummy Letter” from the prison notifying us of the sentencing mistake.
When we get such “Dummy Letters,” we contact the attorney who last represented the client, sometimes years earlier, and ask them to come to court to make sure they agree with the sentencing corrections. That is what happened. The time that the prisoner was to serve in custody remained sixteen years, but a minor calculation error needed to be corrected.
Cora was confused. She told me, “I already spoke with the defense attorney and he had no problem with the correction.” I thought my clerk told me the same thing. We were wrong. The attorney never gave permission for the case to be called in his absence. The fact that the attorney arrived one hour late, and never phoned the court, contributed to our mistaken belief that he was not coming.
I tried to calm him down. “Look, sir, you need to take a deep breath. No one wants to handle anything in your absence. Perhaps we all made a mistake. There is no need to get so hostile toward everyone. I am happy to start back at the beginning and give you a chance to review the file if that’s what you want. But please calm down.”
Then I left the bench. I learned in judicial demeanor classes that leaving the bench was one of the best ways to restore order in the courtroom. I’ve used it with irate defendants, but never with an irate attorney. Sure enough, when I returned to the courtroom, he was calm, realized we weren’t doing anything to hurt his client, and apologized for his behavior. He swore that he had never spoken to the prosecutor before; the prosecutor had notes in her file showing that she had indeed spoken to this attorney.
As I said to the attorney, “We are all of a certain age. All of us get confused more easily. We each made errors. Let’s move on.” We all giggled, and the morning calendar ended.
A confrontation is looming over a pending case. I can choose to get involved or ignore what’s happening. If I choose to get involved, the prosecutor will accuse me of meddling. If I choose to do nothing, I will feel I didn’t try my best to help a young mentally ill woman avoid a felony conviction following her for life.
Young and rotund, this woman is charged with committing two weaponless robberies on the same day. She approached two strangers, punched one of them in the head, and demanded their cell phones. She was found crouching in a manhole below the street with the cell phones. Paranoia along with schizophrenia caused the defendant to wrongly believe that each of the victims was taking photos of her. Both sides agreed the defendant was a college student with no prior criminal record. She had a schizophrenic break in her early twenties and began acting completely out of character. Her mother and sister in the audience confirmed the defendant’s history. She has been in custody already for ten months. After the jail administered psychiatric medication, the defendant is no longer psychotic.
The District Attorney of Los Angeles County, Jackie Lacey, recently spoke at a judges’ seminar. She told a story: “Recently a young woman with no criminal record was accused of committing a carjacking during a psychotic break. Her parents came to the office of the District Attorney to plead for leniency for their daughter. I intervened to make sure the woman would be treated with compassion due to her mental health condition. I intend for one of the hallmarks of my administration to be treating mentally ill incarcerated inmates with understanding.” Her words came to mind as I observed this mentally ill young woman in my court.
I wanted the defendant to be allowed to plead guilty to felonies that would not prevent her from moving forward with her life. Having to disclose robbery convictions to future employers would likely cause her to lose job offers. Perhaps the prosecutor could offer the defendant a plea to lesser charges that could ultimately be dismissed from her official records.
To her credit, the prosecutor was not interested in more jail time for the defendant. She wants the defendant transferred, once she is released, to a one-year residential program. Unsavory and sometimes dangerous folks reside in these programs, however, and they are not always helpful for persons with no criminal record. The defendant’s family wants her to be released to live at home with them and attend a daily out-patient program. I think that would be a healthier environment for her recovery.
As a judge, I can’t change a charge from robbery to a different charge. Charging decisions must be made by a prosecutor’s office. Judges make judicial decisions such as ruling on evidence and deciding how to sentence. These are completely different functions. I have delayed adding my voice to a discussion as to how to handle this case until Friday of this week. I am inclined to step into the fray. I want this young woman to have a future.
This morning a colleague told us of a problem during his jury selection. A seated juror called the court: “I have a migraine and can’t come to court.” Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but unusually, he had only one alternate juror. He needed to replace the sick juror with his only alternate. Why didn’t he get additional alternates? Because he gambled and lost.
He told me about four potential alternates. Even though the attorneys were cordial, they couldn’t agree on two jurors from the pool of four. One of the potential alternates was a corporate attorney from a family of police officers. Prosecutors don’t want attorneys on the jury because they tend to dominate, and other jurors will defer to them. It’s not just attorneys. Celebrities are also deferred to. Last year, the former champion boxer Oscar de la Hoya was on my potential jury panel. He was a gracious guy, obviously suffering a bad cold, yet he did not try to get out of participating. The prosecutor excused him; he didn’t want all of the jurors agreeing with Mr. de la Hoya just because they wanted to side with a celebrity. We were all sorry to see him go.
Another juror the prosecutor wouldn’t accept in my colleague’s trial was a young man who worked as an air conditioning repairman at a hospital. However, in 1989, he had been convicted of driving under the influence. He pled guilty but was unhappy for the manner in which police treated him. Although he claimed he held no animosity toward law enforcement, the prosecutor didn’t want to take a chance with him. Likewise, another potential alternate, a hairdresser, cut police officers’ hair for twenty-five years. She had her own “open container of alcohol” case years earlier, and it was easy to understand why neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted her on the jury. My colleague was stuck. He could either proceed with one alternate or bring back the dozen people in the audience the next morning and continue the jury selection. He impulsively agreed to go with one alternate.