In Part 86, Judge Mader examines the circumstances of a so-called Watson murder, where an intoxicated driver kills someone while driving drunk, and details the hidden tragedies she finds among the jury pool.
You can find links to all installments of Inside the Robe here.
An unusual murder trial arrived in my court this morning. It is called a “Watson” murder, named after a case allowing drunk drivers to be prosecuted for second-degree murder if they kill someone on the road while intoxicated. These cases are sad because, almost always, the victim is a stranger. A Watson murder conviction carries life in prison with an unknown date for release. As is typical in these cases, the defendant has two prior misdemeanor driving under the influence convictions but no other criminal record.
An earlier trial before me at the Airport Courthouse involved similar facts. A mildly autistic defendant drove many miles recklessly along the ocean on Pacific Coast Highway at high speeds, weaving in and out of lanes. He may have been trying to commit suicide because he had just been fired and his girlfriend announced that she was leaving him. A beautiful golden-haired teenager walking safely on the side of the highway to join her waiting father had her life extinguished when the defendant veered into her. Convicted of murder, he is in prison for life. While he had no record of criminal behavior, witnesses testified that at the crime scene he seemed indifferent to the tragedy he caused.
The public defender wants to take tomorrow off, a Friday, to take her fourteen-year-old daughter to Disneyland for her birthday. Doctors’ appointments for attorneys or their children are easier to justify. This trial already is likely to last until Thanksgiving, two weeks away.
Next Friday is Veterans Day. It’s hard for me to ask jurors to cancel plans for the next three weeks, and also tell them we will be closed on two separate Fridays. On the other hand, what’s more important? A mother coming through for a birthday commitment is pretty significant.
I allowed the court to go dark today. But I extracted a promise from the attorneys before they left that they would move the trial along by agreeing to minor facts to avoid having a live witness testify (called a stipulation). Both sides agreed that death was caused by major injuries from a car accident. They also agreed that a nurse drew blood from the defendant and that the defendant’s blood was booked into evidence, then taken to the crime lab for analysis. That eliminated calling several witnesses.
The prosecution theorizes that the intoxicated defendant crossed the center divider and crashed full force into the passenger side of a vehicle. The victim’s driver/husband could have done nothing to avoid the accident. Neither the husband driver, nor the defendant in his own car, was injured. Killed instantly was the 30-year-old Persian newlywed in the front passenger seat of her new husband’s car. The defendant ran from the scene and hid nearby in an apartment house under construction. Fleeing the scene is always a bad move by a defendant because a juror may consider flight from the scene of a crime as “consciousness of guilt.” Fleeing implies that the person who is running away knows that he did something wrong.
While it’s always difficult to select jurors, most people’s worst nightmare is to have someone in their family or themselves killed by a drunk driver. This awful scenario is more common than jurors worrying that a gang member will invade their home to commit a robbery. Jurors say, “I just can’t be fair to the defendant if he got behind the wheel while under the influence.” Other jurors remark, “I would never ride in a car if the driver had been drinking even one glass of wine.”
One potential juror, after requesting a private conference, told an unfathomable story of personal tragedy. She was an attractively dressed, middle-aged brunette who told us: “I used to have two children, but they are both deceased. My daughter was killed by a speeding police vehicle. We are now in litigation, and I don’t believe the police version of how the accident occurred. Nine months after my daughter was killed, my son died from an overdose. Directly related to these events, my husband died.”
While she didn’t say what happened to her husband, the inference was that he committed suicide. Wow. People are walking around with such tragic family circumstances. She was only one with several horrifying stories yesterday afternoon. A judge’s job involves listening to intimate stories of people’s personal lives and sometimes it feels like I’m prying. Yet without hearing these tales, we would not be able to properly screen for jurors who would be fair to both sides.
The prosecutor wants to show autopsy photos of the victim to the jurors, but the defense attorney objects that they are irrelevant and inflammatory. I reviewed the pictures, which were gruesome. I must rule whether the pictures are relevant or will unfairly inflame the passions of the jurors. I asked the prosecutor several times to explain why the pictures were relevant. “Your Honor, the law states that autopsy photos can be shown to jurors to illustrate aspects of the case. I want to show that the victim had massive injuries all over her body. That shows the intensity of the contact.”
I had trouble understanding the relevance. The prosecutor was already showing pictures of the demolished car. The victim’s passenger seat, as well as her side of the car, were crushed and obliterated. There was nothing left. That is already a disturbing picture that shows the intensity of the impact. What would the autopsy photos add? When the jurors hear from the widower, they will feel compassion and sympathy for him.
I’m excluding the autopsy pictures. The coroner will testify with a chart showing a human body marked with notes describing all the broken bones and injuries. That will adequately demonstrate the force of the crash.
The pace of jury selection is glacial. More tragic stories from prospective jurors this morning. One juror told us, “My son had a high school friend. She was supposed to be a designated driver. But she drove drunk and killed three people in her car. Thank God, my son wasn’t with her. I can’t sit in this trial without thinking of that crash.”
The prosecutor told the jurors, “While most people think that murders involve shooting, stabbing, or another form of violence, under some circumstances, driving under the influence of alcohol and killing someone can also be charged as murder.” But no matter how heinous the circumstances, several jurors are unable to conceive that driving under the influence could ever be elevated to murder.
A harried public defender tried to get me to call her client’s case yesterday out of order to let him enter a plea of guilty to five counts of child molestation. She arrived in my courtroom just as my jury trial was about to begin. I told her, “I’m sorry. You need to come here at 8:30 a.m. when my courtroom opens, not two hours later. I just don’t have time to take a complicated plea, especially since I need a Spanish language interpreter.” Her answer: “Look, I’ve been working on my client for days to get him to accept this plea. He is facing a life sentence if he loses at trial. The DA has offered him sixteen years. I finally convinced him. If you don’t let him take the plea today, he may change his mind and I will go nuts.”
“I’m sorry. I will be here tomorrow at 8:30 and we will have the doors open waiting for you.” Grumbling, she said that she would be here at 8:30 sharp. Our doors opened at 8:30 today, as promised, but neither she nor the prosecutor was present. My clerk informed me, “The public defender called the court and explained that she wouldn’t be here until much later because she had to vote and couldn’t vote after work.” The prosecutor also called explaining that he would be late as he had a flat tire.
My court reporter was livid. She has three children and also wanted to vote on her way to work this morning. But she drove by her polling place, saw a line, and felt her obligation was to show up in court promptly at 8:30. When the public defender finally blew into court with her “I voted” sticker, she was not even apologetic. I told her, “Our court was ready to take your case at 8:30 and our court reporter had to skip voting because of you.” Her client took the plea, and she finally came over to apologize to me for her tardiness and irritability. I told her, “Apologize to the court reporter.” She did, but not until after patronizingly telling her, “Don’t worry, there will still be time for you to vote after work today.” She seemed taken aback when the court reporter told her about her own three children as well as soccer practice.
My potential jurors are irritated at how long it’s taking to select a jury. This morning a young woman, slouching in her seat with an irritated expression, told one of the attorneys, “I feel like the jury trial process is wasting my time.” The director of a motion picture company, she was doing her best to get out of jury service. I gave her my usual spiel. “There are many people here who sacrifice more than you to be here. I would bet that if you or someone close to you were on trial, you would want jurors with a better attitude than your own.” Her demeanor never changed as she continued to lean in her chair, propping up her bent head with her hand as though she could barely keep awake. One of the sides excused her, so her infuriating act worked.