Judge in Kraft Case Has Reputation as Fair, Expedient
When Judge Donald A. McCartin sentenced a man to death in 1986 for murdering a 12-year-old Huntington Beach girl, he summarized the defense in a word: “Hogwash.”
Such remarks are part of the blunt style which has helped make McCartin one of the most renowned judges in Orange County. His dry wit, short-fuse temper and candor are overshadowed only by his reputation for quick decisions designed to move cases rapidly in his Santa Ana courtroom.
“He is an irascible, ornery old man. But I love him,” attorney Michael A. Horan of Santa Ana said of the 63-year-old jurist, who last year sentenced one of Horan’s clients to death.
McCartin, a Superior Court judge for 10 years, now presides over the biggest murder case in the county’s history: the trial of Randy Steven Kraft.
Kraft, 43, is charged with murdering 16 young men in Orange County. But prosecutors say they will use another 21 slayings as evidence in seeking the death penalty.
Six on Death Row
McCartin is one of the county’s most experienced judges in capital cases. Six of the 18 inmates from Orange County on Death Row were sent there by McCartin. No other judge in the county has sent that many.
Local legal pundits consider it ironic that the Kraft case, which has taken five years to get to trial, now is assigned to the judge best known for expediency.
Already McCartin has acted with his usual swiftness. Kraft’s lawyers at one time estimated that it could take six months to pick a jury. Under McCartin, jury selection is barely a month old and is almost done.
“Judge McCartin has been a genius the way he has organized the jury selection process in this case,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, Kraft’s prosecutor.
Backed Up By Supreme Court
Kraft’s attorneys, on the other hand, are upset that McCartin has ruled against them in almost all major pretrial issues, including their request to split the case into several trials. The state Supreme Court has backed him up.
Few lawyers who have appeared before McCartin are indifferent about him.
“He beats up on me every time I have a case in his courtroom,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas M. Goethals, who has tried two death penalty cases before the judge. “But I tell you, I like him. He’s probably the best judge in the county.”
Defense attorney Gregory W. Jones of Newport Beach speculates that he probably has had more verbal run-ins with McCartin than any other lawyer around. McCartin once told him that he never wanted to see him in his courtroom again.
“But the next day it’s always forgotten; I’ll take McCartin any time I can get him,” Jones said. “He has the most incredible ability to see a case for what it’s worth and know what’s a proper sentence or what’s the best solution to a case.”
Jones, however, shares the view of many other defense lawyers that McCartin is sometimes too quick to make a decision.
“He sometimes sacrifices fairness for expediency,” Jones said. “If you have a complicated defense, you have to fight him because he gets impatient and tries to cut you off.”
McCartin, interviewed last week in his chambers, smiled at comments about him.
“I do have a short fuse,” he said. “I don’t like to put a lawyer’s case on for him. But if I see that things are dragging out, I don’t mind stepping in to speed things along.”
Fires at Prosecutors, Too
But defense lawyers who consider him quick to act take comfort that when the judge shoots from the hip, he fires at prosecutors as well as the defense.
“Some judges will rubber-stamp anything the prosecutors in this county want, but not McCartin,” said one prominent criminal attorney who did not want his name used. “He will lay into a deputy D.A. just as easily as he will one of us.”
In recent years, McCartin has angered prosecutors in two major cases.
The first occurred two years ago in the trial of Larry Cowell. Cowell, the 37-year-old owner of an Anaheim body shop, admitted to undercover authorities that he set up the murder of 27-year-old Scott Campbell, whose body was thrown from a plane into the ocean past Catalina Island.
McCartin ruled that there were no special circumstances in the case, which not only prevented prosecutors from seeking the death penalty but also eliminated a sentence of life without parole. Cowell instead was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Reduced Jury Verdict
In February, McCartin took the almost unheard of step of reducing a jury verdict, in the Charles Edward Burke murder case, from an automatic life without parole to 25 years to life. Burke had claimed that the victim had made homosexual advances toward him.
McCartin said that he had tried other homosexual-related cases and that this one was not so radically worse that it warranted the stiffer sentence.
“That was a gift (for the defendant) you won’t see in this courthouse again for a long time,” said Edward R. Munoz, who prosecuted the case. But Munoz said he would not hesitate to work in McCartin’s courtroom again.
“Of course not,” Munoz said. “Just because I disagree with him on this one doesn’t mean he’s not a great judge.”
McCartin says his most difficult case was last year when he sentenced Anita Ford to life without parole for planning the murder of her husband. It was the toughest sentence ever handed down against a female defendant in Orange County under the state’s 10-year-old capital punishment law.
The judge could have reduced the verdict, as he did in Burke’s case. But the evidence that Ford planned the murder for financial gain was so overwhelming that “I felt I had no choice.”
Though most cases that McCartin deals with involve serious felonies, a day in his courtroom seldom passes without some humor.
Once during a murder trial, McCartin noticed that his bailiff had stepped away.
“I want to be reincarnated as a bailiff; they do nothing,” he told the laughing jury.
He Shows Humor
In another case, an exchange between a lawyer and witness over who had arranged for a murder became extremely difficult to follow. When it was clear the lawyer was confused, McCartin interjected: “Let the record show it wasn’t me.”
Another time, McCartin expressed amazement when he saw a defendant’s name marked on a wall calendar on a date he was on vacation. He startled lawyers by jumping from the bench for a closer look. He returned and told them in deadpan:
“Gentleman, we can’t hold our hearing that date. The only case I have that day is a Mr. St. Patrick. Let the record show we won’t require him to appear either.”
While many defense lawyers defend McCartin as fair to both sides, there is no doubt that the prosecution was pleased when he got the Kraft case.
The judge in the case was Robert R. Fitzgerald. But defense lawyers quickly used their one challenge to have him removed. The case then went to James K. Turner, who was forced off the case last December by emergency surgery.
The presiding judge at that time, Harmon G. Scoville, picked the names of three judges--McCartin, C. Robert Jameson, and Jean H. Rheinheimer--and asked prosecutor Brown and Kraft’s attorneys to select one. If they could not agree, Scoville said, he would name a judge.
Kraft’s lawyers wanted Rheinheimer. They were under the impression Brown did not mind any of the three. But Brown surprised them and challenged the choice.
Scoville then chose McCartin, which is what prosecutors had wanted all along. The Kraft lawyers were furious. Brown had outmaneuvered them, and they knew it. Lawyer C. Thomas McDonald appeared particularly upset.
“I heard Tom was not pleased with me on the case, and I couldn’t figure out why,” McCartin said.
Then someone reminded him. Six years ago, he had fired McDonald from a case.
McDonald, who at the time was chief deputy public defender, was representing a murder suspect named David Samuels. McDonald believed that Samuels was incompetent to stand trial and thought though a state Supreme Court ruling on Samuels backed him up. But Judge McCartin disagreed and started the trial.
McDonald, however, refused to “go forward” with the trial.
“You’re fired,” McCartin angrily told him from the bench.
The public defender’s office took the issue to federal court, but it was dropped after Samuels pleaded guilty in a plea bargain.
“I remembered the Samuels case, but I did not remember that Tom was the lawyer,” McCartin said with a grin. In fact, he did not remember that Samuels’ prosecutor was Bryan F. Brown--the Kraft prosecutor.
A Bemused Judge
McCartin seems almost bemused by his critics, as if he cherishes possessing the qualities which antagonize them.
For most of his career as a lawyer, he specialized in family law. He became a family law judge, and is proud of his reputation for handling more cases faster than anybody else. His passion for speed carried over when he took on criminal trials.
“In a lot of cases I usually have pretty good luck getting the lawyers to just waive a jury and let me decide a case,” he said. “You can try them faster that way and get better results.”
He also is not afraid to joke about wisecracks that he is pro-prosecution.
When a news photographer asked to take his picture for a story on the Kraft case, the judge deadpaned:
“You want it with Bryan Brown sitting in my lap?”