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In Judge’s Brooklyn Courtroom, Made-for-TV Drama Without the Cameras

posted Nov 27, 2011, 11:22 AM by Pete Weinman   [ updated Nov 27, 2011, 11:22 AM by Lou Bara ]
November 25, 2011

In Judge’s Brooklyn Courtroom, Made-for-TV Drama Without the Cameras

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Wearing wide hoop earrings and an Italian gold costume ring that rested as heavy as a gavel on the bench, Judge Patricia Mafalda DiMango leaned forward to address the teenage defendant.

“One thing I will tell you,” she said, narrowing her eyes lined a thick, midnight black, “you will not get this plea after you leave today.”

Nigel Jordan, 18, was speechless. His lawyer took the plea deal — one year at Rikers Island for burglary — but Judge DiMango was not done.

“It takes a certain kind of person to go into someone’s home, rummage through their things and steal,” she told Mr. Jordan.

“Were you brought up that way?” she demanded, and he shook his head. “Then how dare you?”

Outside the courtroom, Hazel Jordan, his mother, was pleased with the judge’s scolding. “No, he was not brought up like that,” Ms. Jordan said. “She’s very right.”

It was just another busy morning in Judge DiMango’s 15th-floor courtroom in Brooklyn State Supreme Court, where justice takes a swift, personal, sometimes acerbic, turn, creating riveting reality-television drama rarely seen in mundane proceedings intended to move along an overburdened court system.

Judge DiMango marked another line on her desk calendar.

“I compete against myself,” she said, smiling, after court adjourned, stepping out of character and her robes. Out of 33 cases that day, 10 defendants took pleas. “My numbers tell me what I do works.”

Of the 1,543 arraignments in her courtroom between January and October — of the 4,782 in Brooklyn Supreme Court — she accepted 719 guilty pleas. “She has about the best intuitive street feel for a case I’ve seen in a judge,” said Joshua Horowitz, a veteran defense lawyer who tried three cases before her one recent week. “She is so quick on the uptake.”

Her no-nonsense approach, at times pugnacious and unpredictable, has earned her a pro-prosecution reputation in the hallways of the court and in the jail cells of Rikers Island.

One defendant, after thanking her for a plea, told her to be safe. “I will — you’ll be in jail, right?” the judge quipped. They both laughed.

Judge DiMango can display a hot temper, but she also has a soft heart, especially for juvenile offenders whom she admits she tries to scare into changing their lives.

“Sometimes I think they are more afraid of me and what I will do,” Judge DiMango said, “that there is a consequence for their behavior which they don’t get at home.”

Still, some defense lawyers leave her courtroom questioning whether her behavior is appropriate for a judge. Some feel that in her zeal for pleas, she berates defendants and can act in a threatening manner, sometimes giving their clients little if any time to consult their families.

A half-dozen defense lawyers who appear regularly before Judge DiMango would not comment publicly, for worry of being formally censured for criticizing a judge.

“She gets a plea out of intimidation and fear,” one lawyer said. “It’s undignified — it’s not a TV show.”

Of the cases in which a defendant is not maintaining innocence, Judge DiMango said, “I don’t think anybody lets any client take a plea that they don’t believe in.” Tanned, toned and blond at 50-something (long-divorced, without children), Judge DiMango speaks in a comfortable Brooklyn accent. She wears short knit dresses — black or fire-engine red — that show cleavage underneath a robe that casually falls off her shoulders; she drives an aqua Porsche.

She earned fame as a teenager in Dyker Heights in 1970, when she and her younger sister and mother appeared in a Life magazine ad, loading a Maytag dishwasher. She revered her parents’ professional successes; her father, Tony, was a prominent dentist and her mother, Mafalda, a longtime school board official.

Before she went to St. John’s University School of Law, Judge DiMango graduated from Brooklyn College and got her master’s degree in developmental psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University while teaching third grade at Public School 164 in Brooklyn.

She likes to employ those skills when determining the best approach to reach a defendant. She has criticized defendants’ appearances and attitudes, most notably last June when she blasted Chazmia Morrison, a 17-year-old charged with assault, for wearing torn jeans and a tight top that revealed tattoos.

When Ms. Morrison completed a total makeover for her next appearance, Judge DiMango drew letters and phone calls from around the world applauding her.

“That wasn’t even my most important case,” Judge DiMango said, laughing. “Most of the time, I’m just saying what almost everyone is thinking.”

Judge DiMango was appointed to the bench by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in 1995. Because of her efficiency in disposing cases, she was called on three years ago to handle arraignments involving felonies (not homicides) or move them to pretrial hearings. (About 95 percent of all cases in Brooklyn Supreme Court do not go to trial.)

Her court’s name, PD85, is as unconventional as her style. Court clerks chose PD for “pending decision” (not “possible disposition” or Pat DiMango). She chose 85 because her friend, the former New York Jets wide receiver Wesley Walker, wore that jersey number.

Like her court’s namesake, she sprinted off the bench several weeks ago, robes flying, when she heard there was a commotion in the hall with a defendant on the docket.

A detective was arresting him for another crime and he resisted. Judge DiMango demanded that the detective remove his shackles. “If you don’t, I will!” she shouted. She ended up getting a plea.

Before a defendant pleads guilty, Judge DiMango asks the standard question: “Did anybody threaten you, force you or coerce you” into taking the plea?

Minutes of a 2009 case show that a defense lawyer, Robert Marinelli, told Judge DiMango that his client, who was charged with burglary and did not know much English, felt pressured into accepting a plea deal on the spot. She later vacated the plea. When Mr. Marinelli questioned her fairness in the courtroom, she told him that he would no longer be trying cases before her. Mr. Marinelli, now specializing in civil rights law, said he did not want to discuss the case.

The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct has never investigated or disciplined Judge DiMango, according to the office’s chief administrator.

In addition to handling arraignments, including crimes against children, Judge DiMango also presides over a handful of trials each year. She was the judge in the Nixzmary Brownchild abuse case in 2008 and is now sitting on the high-profile trial involving workers from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services who are charged with negligently criminal homicide in the death of 4-year-old Marchella Brett-Pierce, who weighed 18 pounds when she died. Last week she wrote a 22-page decision denying a motion to dismiss the unprecedented case.

“When you’re doing something that’s novel,” she said, “you want to do the right thing.”

During the daily proceedings, she is heartened when her strong words can provoke a change.

In her office overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, where she often walks to clear her head, Judge DiMango has a framed, handwritten poem from a former 16-year-old defendant. She ordered him to sit in her courtroom for one week in 2009 to see how his life could be.

Next to a woman so stern, I see a smile now and then.

Some people call her mean, but I can see her as a friend.

Once a boy filled with hatred, and a heart filled with gloom

But through this I can bloom.

Your Honor, you have made me bloom.

“I cried when I got it,” she said.


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