In Part 92, Judge Mader assesses the dismissal of a vehicular manslaughter case based on evidence of faulty brakes. The Judge also explores some of the specific legal perils faced by a defendant who decides to represent themselves when accused of a sex crime.
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One case before me finally ended, after several years spent on my morning calendar. An elderly man, driving a Nissan Infiniti, had been late and was rushing to a car auction. Crossing an intersection against a red light, traveling at least twice the speed limit, he made no effort to stop, and did not brake. T-boning a minivan, he caused it to wrap around a light pole, instantly killing a young mother along with her two daughters. The defendant was arrested for vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. It was the oldest case on my calendar and this morning the specially assigned prosecutor dismissed it even though the facts appeared indefensible.
The defendant always claimed something was wrong with the braking system of his car. The responding law enforcement agency investigated and found that the defendant’s brakes were working fine. In a letter inside the court file, I read a statement from the victims’ devastated father/husband, who was understandably more than furious at the defendant, calling him vile names, and urging the court to never let him out of prison.
A diligent prosecutor has been reviewing the facts and learned of civil lawsuits filed against Nissan by others claiming the same braking problem, throwing into question the accuracy of the first law enforcement agency’s report. The defendant’s car was examined by the same experts involved in the other cases. Not surprisingly, the defendant’s car suffered from the same defect in the braking system as the other civil plaintiffs’ vehicles.
The prosecutor made an ethical decision that he would not be able to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and dismissed the criminal charges. I asked the prosecutor to state on the record why he was dismissing the case so there would be finality for the defendant as well as the victim’s family. The prosecutor remarked that the husband and father of the victims agreed with the decision. That’s important. With the passage of time, and perhaps a civil case pending (civil lawyers were in the courtroom at the time of the dismissal), as well as an understanding that there might well have been a mechanical failure, the husband/father accepted the decision.
This was a case with public interest and the media was waiting to interview the prosecutor after the dismissal. The District Attorney is a public official and needs to create favorable publicity in order to be re-elected. The nightly news will praise the diligent and fair-minded prosecutor’s office. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the public exploitation of this horrible tragedy. I am naïve in thinking that such cases should be handled discreetly and quietly to not inflame either the victims’ family or the defendant’s relatives. Public agencies taking credit is how our system works on all levels.
Another long-pending case ended this morning with a sentencing to state prison of a young man for molesting two teenage girls. The defendant was a friend of the victims’ father and hung around the victims’ home, sometimes spending the night. He was considered a member of the family. Because the victims knew that the defendant was their father’s friend, they didn’t tell their father of the defendant’s groping their breasts and vaginal areas. After the defendant’s arrest, he faced up to life in prison but accepted a sentence of sixteen years.
At first, the defendant would not plead to anything. He knew that one victim in this case already tried to kill herself twice, taking pills as well as slashing her wrists. Perhaps she wouldn’t come to court. The trauma of testifying forces prosecutors to lower their offers to avoid the victims suffering further during cross-examination.
Victims have some safeguards in sexual assault cases to help them, especially children, feel more comfortable testifying. A victim may have a support person, whether a friend, relative or specially trained victim advocate, sit with her or him on the witness stand. The victim doesn’t need to state his or her last name in front of the jury, only their last initial. In special situations a child victim may even testify through a closed-circuit video system, to avoid directly confronting an assailant.
However, when a defendant accused of a sexual crime represents himself, the law allows him to ask direct questions of the victim he’s accused of assaulting. Imagine a victim being required to answer questions posed by the man who attacked them. Some defendants have kept a victim on the stand for hours, even days, asking probing and embarrassing questions. The law has not yet created a workaround for this.
Yesterday I was flustered when I was told there were cameras in the courtroom to film the dismissal of the vehicular manslaughter charges against the defendant whose brakes failed. Appearing on television is sometimes part of our job, but I prefer notice. Not that I watch myself on TV. Ever. I’m like many women of a certain age who are jolted by my face in the mirror. Who is that old lady? Inside I’m in my forties; a good day is when someone says, “You don’t look like a day over sixty.”
All judges, including me, want to look and sound vibrant, young, and smart on TV. Since all judges are covered in black robes, only our faces are visible. When I heard there were cameras outside yesterday, my first thought was my hair. Luckily it looked decent. Then, lipstick. No woman wants to look washed out. I constantly look for lipsticks that claim they won’t fade all day, but their hype doesn’t match my reality. Sometimes I fling on my robe and neglect to snap it properly. Yesterday I made sure I did it right.
Second concern: how will I sound? If I know I will be on TV, I prepare by writing notes. Yesterday was unscripted. I was just going to sit on the bench while the DA dismissed the case. I did impulsively ask the DA on camera, “Could you please explain for the court why you are dismissing this case?” The DA looked annoyed, but I wanted the DA’s office to take full responsibility for the dismissal, and not let the onus fall on me.
I began to muse about this diary as I reviewed yesterday’s happenings. Have I ever altered events to make them more exciting or better material for the diary? Am I changing rulings or acting differently because I am writing everything down? I have no control over which cases or attorneys show up each day. Any attempt to record history, of course, is subjective. I want to appear competent and objective. Am I failing to record less charitable thoughts about attorneys or colleagues or some of my own boneheaded rulings? Have I fully confronted my own inadequacies? I don’t want to denigrate myself or the criminal justice system resulting in readers losing respect for it. We are all human, with significant differences, but we try our best. I want readers to respect our system of justice because I do.
I signed an arrest warrant today for a dog hoarder. An animal control officer educated me. “Just as some hoarders collect newspapers in unsanitary and stuffed houses, other people collect animals. Many animal hoarders are mentally ill. They are urged as part of their sentence to get therapy, but ninety-eight percent of animal hoarders re-offend. The animals are kept in dirty and crowded conditions, not adequately fed, and are in pain and diseased.”
Recently, the animal control officer testified in an animal hoarder trial involving a woman who kept twenty-six Chihuahuas in a small apartment. She testified in her trial for abusing the animals, “They are all my comfort dogs. I would have 300 Chihuahuas if I could.” The animals were confiscated. When the trial was over, and the woman convicted of animal cruelty, the animal control officer went back to her residence. While her trial was going on, she had acquired four more dogs.