In Part 94, Judge Mader recounts a unique apology from a defendant’s family member to a victim’s family during a sentencing hearing. The Judge also details a catch-22 situation where a defendant is deemed neither competent enough to enter a plea nor eligible for release without a trial.
You can find links to all installments of Inside the Robe here.
It’s the week before Christmas and the courthouse is quiet. I’m handling all of the matters for four judges on my floor. The only cases going to trial are ones in which either the defendants representing themselves are refusing to continue cases or cases with attorneys who want to jam the system.
There is a myth that juries will give defendants a “Christmas bonus” the week before Christmas. I don’t see it that way. If an attorney insists upon a Christmas trial date, the attorney could be a problem. Word spreads fast that an attorney is jamming us. Are they gambling that there will be fewer courts available over the holidays? Do they think they can squeeze out a better disposition for their client? That may be true in a smaller county. In Los Angeles, we have many courthouses. If an attorney jams us, they may find themselves picking a jury in Pomona, or Lancaster, each about fifty miles away.
On January 19, I wrote of a young, well-spoken man who was addicted to heroin and committed a weaponless robbery of a convenience store. He had no criminal record. He was allowed to go to a live-in drug program for a year, followed by an out-patient program. Most programs do not take defendants on methadone, and this defendant had to go through a lengthy detox from methadone before he entered the program. I spent much of the year monitoring his progress as he gradually returned to sobriety.
Finally, the defendant came to court completely sober and was ordered to go immediately to the residential program. I’m always wary of sending someone who is out-of-custody to a program. Many defendants go for one last hit of their drug of choice, or one more romp with their partner, or one more Double Whopper, and they never get to the program. I was concerned about this defendant because he looked more disheveled than on the day that I ordered him to go straight to the program. He was to return to court in a month, today, to show us his progress.
Unusually, when my doors opened at 8:30, the defendant wasn’t there. One hour later his public defender, who worked with the defendant and believed in him, showed up in my court with a dejected look. “I called the program and the defendant wasn’t there. He never showed up when we sent him from court last month.” We all believed in the defendant’s recovery. Heroin, unfortunately, was stronger than our good wishes.
I wrote of a jury trial on October 6 involving a senseless murder of a father who had just brought pizza into his house for his children. The defendant’s car plowed into the father’s fence, and the father went into his yard with a cell phone in his hand. According to the drug-fueled defendant, he thought the father was going to shoot him with a gun, and decided to kill him first, leaving three children without a father.
The children of the victim also do not have a mother; she died several years earlier. At the sentencing today, the oldest son, seventeen, told through his sobs how much he loved his father, and how his father cared for the whole family after his mother died.
An unusual speaker from the defendant’s family then spoke. “I am the defendant’s sister. I offer my sincere condolences from my family to yours. I am not making an excuse for my brother. I just want to explain things. My brother has abused drugs for a long time. Still, he must pay for his crime. Justice must be served.”
I don’t know if the victim’s family recognized how unique it was to receive an apology from a member of the defendant’s family. The defendant didn’t say anything. I sentenced him to the mandatory forty years to life.
I also wrote on July 26 about a young woman charged with two unarmed robberies. She took two cell phones from people she imagined were filming her. Both sides agreed she was a former college student having a psychotic break and had no prior record. I argued with Cora because she insisted that the defendant plead guilty to two robberies. Cora is gone for the next three weeks. In her place is a more moderate prosecutor who, after hearing the facts of the robberies said, “I completely disagree with Cora’s evaluation. I’d like to try to get permission for her to plead to lesser charges. I agree that the defendant shouldn’t be haunted by two robbery convictions for the rest of her life.”
Yes, my substitute prosecutor and I manipulated the system while my regular prosecutor was on vacation. I offered to even come back during my own vacation to take this plea if permission was granted. When the moderate prosecutor speaks with his supervisor, he may be perceived as a troublemaker, and the supervisor may become even more obstinate.
My last case this morning was another person who fell through the cracks. This scary-looking defendant, with tattoos all over his body, including his ears, head, and eyelids, is missing a part of his brain. Literally. He was shot in the head a few years ago, and there is fluid in his head where his brain tissue should be. For several years his case has been in my court, waiting for a trial on his competency. Finally, a trial was held before another judge who found him incompetent to stand trial.
There are few doctors with training to evaluate the consequences of having half a brain. The defense attorney said, “It was fascinating during the competency trial to see the defendant’s brain on a screen in which only one side of his brain was lighting up. The only part that functions in the dark area is the motor part. After he was shot, he couldn’t speak or walk, but those functions have come back through physical therapy.”
The defendant’s crime was senseless. He entered a store and said, “You have to pay me five dollars.” He had no weapon. The victims chased the defendant and ended up stabbing him. Because of the defendant’s tattoos and gang affiliation, the maximum sentence was around fifteen years. He faced additional time because the DA intended to show he was a gang member with gang tattoos, and his “robbery” was committed for the benefit of his gang. Gang allegations can add ten years to a sentence under some circumstances.
The defense attorney said, “My client is not competent because he can’t understand the proceedings and I can’t communicate with him.”
The psychiatrists evaluated him as though he was a normally mentally challenged person. Those metrics don’t work, as the defendant is not mentally ill. He is not developmentally disabled. He is not malingering. He has a physical disability that can’t be fixed through medication or training.
The defendant has been in custody for nearly three years. His mother, who attends court every session, wants him home. She doesn’t understand why he is locked up, and neither does anyone else. He cannot enter a plea to the robbery for “time served” because he has been found legally incompetent. He cannot be restored to competency because his brain cannot learn what’s required. Both sides are exploring a conservatorship in which he would be released to a conservator, probably his mother, under the supervision of the County Public Guardian. As this is happening, the defendant sits in a jail cell.