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Katherine Mader: “Hillside Strangler”

After I decided that I would keep a diary for one year, I could not slack off from writing every working day. Even if I didn’t have the time to translate my daily notes into prose, I still took notes. I think discipline and perseverance are keys to writing. I used my lunch hour to […]

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After I decided that I would keep a diary for one year, I could not slack off from writing every working day. Even if I didn’t have the time to translate my daily notes into prose, I still took notes. I think discipline and perseverance are keys to writing. I used my lunch hour to write every day I could. When I came home every day, I greeted my family, then retreated to write up my notes before I could relax and have dinner. When the first draft was done, I made a rule to read a section every day, add dialogue, enliven descriptions, remove adjectives and adverbs. I tried never to miss a working day, and took off on the weekends to get a break.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Mader.

After spending her career immersed in all angles of criminal law as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor of death penalty cases as well as police officers for on-duty shootings, first inspector general of the Los Angeles Police Department, and twenty years running a felony trial courtroom, Katherine decided it was time for a change. She realized that most people do not understand the personal, inside workings of the criminal justice system and she wanted to share her intimate knowledge. Upon retirement in early 2020, she was ready to publish her book: Inside the Robe: A Judge’s Candid Tale of Criminal Justice in America. Here is the link to the book:


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I spent many years trying to figure out how I might give the public a more honest and realistic portrait of how judges think. I decided that keeping a diary of one year on the bench, reflecting the politics, personal interactions, and cases I dealt with every day would be the most effective way to bring the public into my courtroom, and, most importantly, into my head as I made decisions on matters such as whether someone deserved another chance, or should be sent to prison.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

My career had different phases, with highlights in each one. As a criminal defense attorney in the 1980’s, I represented the “Hillside Strangler”, a man charged with raping and strangling ten women. I learned to represent and relate to someone who, in many ways, was a despicable human being and also learned how the media reporting can distort what happens in a courtroom.

As a prosecutor in the 1990’s, I learned about criminal defendants from a different angle, particularly two especially cold women I tried in separate cases for hiring someone to kill for insurance money. When I prosecuted a Caucasian police officer for unlawfully shooting a Black tow truck driver, I earned how difficult it was to convict police officers for on-duty excessive force.

As inspector general for the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1990’s, I learned how police departments work from the inside. As the civilian overseeing their disciplinary system, I learned how easy it was to manipulate by command staff in order to make sure favorite officers did not get a disciplinary record. Being forced to resign was a unique and powerful experience also, one that I never had previously experienced.

My lengthiest stint has been the past two decades as a felony trial judge. While I recount many interesting stories in my book, likely the most impactful was having the power to release a man who had spent thirty-four years in prison for a murder he did not commit. The prosecutor’s office agreed with me, and a certificate of actual innocence was granted, wiping his record clean.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

While I had written short articles for newspapers and trade magazines, the biggest challenge I faced in becoming an author was that I had never before written a book. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I read all the books I could find, attended a weekly workshop, and re-wrote my books many times. When I hear from others that they like the book today, I, as many other others, still suffer from “impostor syndrome.” I still can’t believe I had the capability to write a real book!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made when I first started writing was showing my book to the members of my writing group, a diverse group of women in careers completely outside law. After they had a week to digest chapter one, they looked at me in astonishment, asking, “Do you really expect us to be interested in all the dense subject matter in your book? Who is your audience? It can’t be us.” After this feedback I realized I had no idea that I needed to include dialogue, descriptions of people, places, and personal vulnerabilities. I was writing my book like a legal brief and needed to start totally over.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am learning about marketing my book. I had no idea about the intricacies of how to advertise on Amazon or Facebook, and they will take a long time to master. I don’t intend to write another book, and that is a minus for advertising. Apparently the first book in a series will usually not get a lot of attention. I hope that my book will be an exception to the rule.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

“Interesting” stories come in many forms. Many readers are intrigued by my relationship with Angelo Buono, the “Hillside Strangler.” I write about how it was important, from a defense standpoint, to make sure the jury saw us having a harmonious relationship, particularly because he was accused of raping and killing so many women. If the jury liked me, and thought he wasn’t treating me kindly, they would take it out on him. Every day I knew the jury’s eyes were on us. Buono, in fact, was often quite rude and demeaning towards me. Yet I continued to pretend, even on days full of insults coming from his direction, that I found him warm and that our relationship was friendly.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Book writing can be learned. I am not a “lyrical” writer so I’m not saying that everyone can learn to be Maya Angelou. I write more like a journalist. If you’ve got something to say and the will to learn to write you can do it, too.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

After I decided that I would keep a diary for one year, I could not slack off from writing every working day. Even if I didn’t have the time to translate my daily notes into prose, I still took notes. I think discipline and perseverance are keys to writing. I used my lunch hour to write every day I could. When I came home every day, I greeted my family, then retreated to write up my notes before I could relax and have dinner. When the first draft was done, I made a rule to read a section every day, add dialogue, enliven descriptions, remove adjectives and adverbs. I tried never to miss a working day, and took off on the weekends to get a break.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I am inspired by people who do not have writing experience but are able to capture the inside stories of their careers and illuminate their work for others in an inspiring way through writing. For example, Anthony Bourdain’s masterpiece, Kitchen Confidential, was a book that I wanted to emulate. Another book, How Doctors Think, by _________, was another book that opened my eyes to the cognitive errors doctors make on a daily basis.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am on Facebook, and will respond to anyone through Facebook Messenger. My book page, “InsidetheRobe.com” will also allow anyone to contact me.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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