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[whitespace] Biter Courthouse Junkies

Waiting for tickets to the trial of the century

By Peter Bellone

HEY MIKE, why is the trunk of your car open?" Valerie Harris asks.

"Water gets in there, and I have to air it out."

Valerie smiles. "Come on, you know you had a body in there."

We all laugh. What makes this joke particularly funny is the location. We are standing in front of the Redwood City courthouse waiting for tickets to see the Scott Peterson murder trial.

And why not? It's got everything you can possible want: sex on the sly, death, Michael Jackson's attorney, a street blocked off for all the satellite news trucks and a defendant who seems to be enjoying himself. You can go in the morning and see the same people at night on television. Every day, if you want to. And why not? What else is on? Cop shows and reality TV? "You're fired" loses its edge after awhile. Seen live, "guilty" or "not guilty" never does. This is about getting back to the basics, the flesh-and-blood drama of life unfiltered. Those of us who go are purists, man.

Like others, we form clubs; ours is the Breakfast Club. Since the ticket drawing ends at 7:30am, and the proceedings usually don't start until 8:30 or 9, we hold court down in the basement cafeteria to discuss the case. The paths leading here vary. Valerie, the most knowledgeable among us and the unofficial club president, began in a Clay Aiken--the American Idol runner-up--chat room. There, she met a sketch artist for the Sacramento Bee. In time, the sketch artist popped the question, "I'm sketching the Peterson trial; you want to go?"

For Mike Sullivan, it started as a simple matter of convenience. The courthouse is only a five-minute drive; the case is all over the news, and he figured it would be interesting. And then--BAM!

"It's like, I want to get a law degree now!" Mike says with a laugh.

The Breakfast Club welcomes temporary members, like Brannon, a high school student from Florida who wants to be a lawyer. Brannon's mother was here on business and took her along. And then there was the old Italian lady, a veteran of the Moscone-Milk trial, infamous for the "Twinkie Defense," but we lost her somehow. It's OK, if we lose one, a wife or husband usually comes along to take her place.

But enough of that; inquiring minds want to know: Is he guilty or not?

Except for myself--I'm not quite up to speed yet--the time in the trenches has professionalized opinions; all the facts aren't in. Hell, the actual trial hasn't even started yet. To render a verdict now would be a denial of everything we have seen and learned so far. Valerie says, "Ninety percent think Scott's guilty because of the media. I don't know enough about it to judge him yet."

After the second day, Peterson's guilt or innocence doesn't seem as big an issue. There is so much more to talk about: introduction of evidence, the judge's ruling on keeping the jurors' questionnaire and whether or not the jury should be sequestered. Mike predicts that a jury who sleeps at home will prematurely stay at home. "In a couple of months, it [not sequestering the jury] will ruin the trial. I'm scared someone will do something crazy when they find out where one of the jurors lives." I agree, but our president doesn't. One thing we all agree on though: Mark Geragos is the man. He's smooth with a potential juror and a tiger with the judge, and his rebuttal of the media's lawyer was great, both down to earth and legally sound.

So how do you join? Just show up--but staying for the long haul is a little tricky: you've got to be retired or self-employed; a flexible schedule is a must. Mike sells cars from home, Valerie is an independent computer programmer, and I'm a substitute teacher/freelance writer. Other than that, if you're cool, we'll have you.

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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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