The defendant, facing prison for violating his probation, stood in a federal courtroom asking for another chance.
The judge asked if he had any gang tattoos.
No, the defendant insisted. Just one of my mom, and one of my ex.
Because the judge in this case was David Carter, what happened next was less shocking than it might have been.
Carter climbed off the bench, strode swiftly to the defendant and pulled up the man’s shirt. Convinced of his honesty, the judge said, “You can go home.”
The anecdote — recounted by the defendant’s attorney, Robert Weinberg — illustrates a venturesome, hands-on, unconventional streak familiar to many who have worked around Carter during his decades in Orange County on the municipal, state and federal bench.
“Judge Carter decided to let my client gamble, and put him to the test,” Weinberg said. “It illustrates his boldness.”
Carter’s uncommon approach to his cases has been on display recently. The 73-year-old U.S. District Court judge is presiding over a clash pitting homeless advocates against officials from Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange who are seeking to clear out homeless encampments along a three-mile stretch of the Santa Ana River trail.
Officials began clearing the river encampments last month, but the judge insisted it be done “humanely and with dignity,” and issued a temporary restraining order halting the arrest of those who refused to leave.
The judge has made multiple trips to the river to inspect conditions firsthand. Walking ahead of a big entourage last week, he passed rows of tents and piles of debris. He snapped photos with his cellphone. He fired off questions. A decorated former Marine, the judge told one of the river’s denizens, an ex-Marine in a wheelchair, “Semper fi.”
“I’m tired of the paperwork and the ‘we can’t get it done’ nonsense,” Carter has said. “I’m looking for solutions now.”
Under his prodding, the opposing parties struck an agreement that the river camp will be cleared out on Tuesday, with the county giving out temporary motel vouchers to those affected. The county will also retrofit properties in Orange and Santa Ana to provide temporary housing, and has agreed to expand shelters and to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Carter’s approach was completely in character, said Jennifer Keller, an attorney who has appeared before him many times. “Rather than just sitting passively and calling balls and strikes, which is how most judges see their role, he’ll roll up his sleeves and say, ‘How can we solve this?’” Keller said.
Carter attended UCLA, where he ran track. He joined the Marines and fought at Khe Sanh in 1968, where he was badly wounded, his arm shattered by gunfire, his lip partly blow away by a grenade. He spent 1969 in hospitals.
“He was told he would never walk again because of his injuries, and a year and a half later he was running a marathon,” Keller said. “He did remark that after that he would never be afraid again, and I believe him.”
Carter returned to the States afflicted with what he called “survivor’s guilt” and attended UCLA law school. As a young prosecutor in Orange County, his cases included William G. Bonin, the Downey truck driver and serial murderer who became known as the Freeway Killer.
Carter became a Municipal Court judge in 1981, and joined the Superior Court bench in 1982. His nickname around the courthouse was “King David.”
He became known for taking a personal interest in the probationers who came before him, keeping their Polaroids on his wall, cheering their progress and often climbing off the bench to talk to them. He told juvenile offenders they had a choice: Go back to school, or go to my school, meaning juvenile hall.
He took a similarly active approach to drug offenders, giving chances to defendants he thought deserved it, marshaling the resources of the probation department and the county healthcare agency.
“Long before anyone had heard of anything like ‘drug court,’ he had created one,” Keller said. “He was 20 years ahead of his time.”
In 1986, Carter walked the precincts as a Democrat in a bid to unseat Rep. Robert K. Dornan in the 38th Congressional District. He lost in the primary but kept a worn-soled shoe as a souvenir.
Carter championed efforts to remove tattoos from defendants looking to distance themselves from gangs, at times urging plastic surgeons to volunteer their services. He also made headlines by inviting federal immigration officials into his court to question convicted felons in a holding cell about their immigration status, to streamline deportation procedures and relieve the burden on the probation department.
Denise Gragg, a longtime defense attorney, remembers representing a client accused of rape in a case before Carter in the early 1990s. Gragg’s 8-year-old son was sick, and she had to bring him to court.
Carter let the boy sleep on a couch in his chambers and gave him a trash can in case he needed to throw up.
“He was gentle and caring and careful not to make me feel bad or awkward,” Gragg said. “He was just a great judge legally, but in terms of what he did that touched me as a human, it was that day.”
In 1997, in what was described as an unprecedented ruling, Carter ordered the release of transcripts of a grand jury investigation into Merrill Lynch’s alleged role in the county bankruptcy, and criticized then-Dist. Atty. Michael Capizzi for what he called an “unusual and suspect” settlement with Merrill Lynch.
“He’s always been a bizarre judge,” Capizzi shot back.
Nominated by President Clinton, Carter became a federal judge in 1999. Since then, he has presided over some of the biggest federal cases to come through Orange County, including the trial of the leaders of the Mexican Mafia and Aryan Brotherhood prison gangs.
He presided over Anna Nicole Smith’s battle for millions from her dead husband’s estate. He tossed out a lawsuit seeking to remove President Obama from office on the claim he was not a native-born American. At least once, Carter had an unruly defendant’s mouth duct-taped.
“He’s not Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa,” Keller said. “If you disrespect the court, watch out.”
Carter is famous for keeping brutally long hours. Lawyers say they are expected to be in his courtroom at 7 or 7:30 a.m. If a trial is underway, Carter regularly keeps them there well into the night.
In 2016, in a sharply worded ruling, he threw out a death penalty case against a Los Angeles gang member on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct, and criticized the California Supreme Court.
Carter, along with other federal judges, also hosts a pancake breakfast at the courthouse during the holidays. Lawyers are invited, and so are courthouse janitors. As part of the ritual, a shackled Santa Claus is brought in for a mock detention hearing, accused of going down chimneys without permission.
“It’s bringing the community together in a way only he can do,” said Kate Corrigan, a defense attorney regularly chosen to defend Santa Claus. “Going down to the riverbed was the same thing – it’s community-building and recognizing that we are all equals.”